South African writes best world children’s book

South African author Anita Pouroulis has scooped the Best World Children’s Book Award at the China Children’s Book Fair (CCBF) in Shanghai on 9 November.

south african writer best world childrens book
Anita’s books are a hit with children around the world. (Image: Anita Pouroulis, Facebook)

Aneshree Naidoo
Good children’s books share qualities with good adult novels, according to Australian teacher Rosie Charles.

“Quality writing is never boring,” she says on School A to Z, an Australian education website. “Good children’s books, no matter how simple or complex, have a sense of joy. They can make us laugh and cry. Regardless of how young, readers need strong characters who they can relate to and care about.”

In writing just such a book, South African author Anita Pouroulis has scooped the Best World Children’s Book Award at the China Children’s Book Fair (CCBF) in Shanghai on 9 November. The fair’s Golden Pinwheel Best Children’s Book Awards are divided into two categories: China Original Children’s Book Award for books originally published in China, and International Original Picture Book Award for books published in any country including China. Pouroulis’s Oh, What a Tangle!, illustrated by Monika Filipina Trzpil, was voted Best International Children’s book.

“The Shanghai jury explained that their decision was based on what they felt represented excellence in children’s storytelling,” said her publishers, Digital Leaf.

Anita Pouroulis best world childrens book
Anita Pouroulis lives in Spain with her family. (Image: Fundaciotrams.org)

Oh, What a Tangle! tells the tale of Kiki, who’s too busy having fun to brush her hair. Her adventures truly begin when a family of birds nests in her tangled tresses. Pouroulis says her daughter, who “refused to brush her hair for many years”, was the inspiration for the book. “Having been surrounded by children most of my life, since I was a school teacher for many years, then a mother, I would say that all the children I have known have most certainly given me a rich repertoire of personalities to draw from.”

Published in the United Kingdom in 2012, Oh, What A Tangle!, was voted on to The Guardian website’s Family Favourites list by its readers, who praised it as “elegantly written”. And popular books blog The Bookbag called it “wonderfully funny”.

About the Golden Pinwheel award, Pouroulis, who now lives in Spain, says: “I feel surprised… and quite delighted.” Oh, What a Tangle! is Pouroulis’s fourth book. It was published in South Africa earlier this year. A former primary school teacher, she left the classroom to begin her writing career at Blush, a local teen magazine that is no longer published.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in primary education from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where she was born, and a second degree in psychology. As a teacher, she read “every single book in the libraries of the schools in which I taught”. She says: “I’ve always wanted to write books. As a child I would write countless stories in my old school exercise books. I just wish I could find them all!”

And all she needs to write her best is “a cup of good, strong tea and some Ouma rusks”. Pouroulis has an “eclectic” taste when it comes to reading. Having loved Enid Blyton as a child and critically acclaimed writer Judy Blume as a teenager, she now counts South African author Jenny Hobbs among her favourites. Pouroulis also paints and draws, and plans to illustrate her next book. When she isn’t writing, she’s painting, or “being a mom”.

Why children should read

Reading is often brought up in informal conversations on and research into childhood development and learning, and many authors and academics have weighed in on its benefits, specifically focusing on children’s literature. Asked once how to make children intelligent, Albert Einstein replied: “If you want your children to be intelligent read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Charles adds that good books teach children things subtly while still telling a great story. A US education website says reading helps children gain new vocabulary, empathise with others’ feelings and problems, develop an interest in new subjects and hobbies, understand the heritage of their own and other cultures, stimulate cognitive development, stimulate and expand their imaginations, and stretch their attention spans.

Building empathy

Celebrated young adult and adult fantasy author, Neil Gaiman, agrees that reading fosters empathy, and says: “Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.” Yet he also takes a slightly different view of the importance of children’s literature: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children.”

Speaking at a Reading Agency lecture in 2012, hosted at London’s Barbican, Gaiman said: “Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”

Pouroulis says she encouraged her “reluctant reader” daughter by reading to her at bedtimes: “When a child is tired and comfortable in layers of bed linen, there’s nothing better than having a story read out loud by a parent. With my daughter, her interest in books was roused by our bedtime reading ritual, and she now reads herself before going to sleep each night.”

Gaiman is also a strong advocate of “escapist” fiction, saying it “opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

Pouroulis’s book is available in print, as an app and as an interactive iBook on Apple iTunes, Google Play and Amazon at £5.99 (R98.77) for the book and £1.99 (R32.81) on iTunes. It will also be translated into Spanish. She is working on a new series of children’s books, but hopes to dabble in teen fiction as well, saying: “As a teenager, I found novels relating to the teenage angst and dilemmas I was going through so inspirational and reassuring. I would love to give the same experience to a new generation of teen readers.”

The Golden Pinwheel Best Children’s Book Awards were instituted to help stimulate advancement in a number of areas, including excellence in children’s publishing, reading among children, cultural diversity and international exchange. It also showcases leading children’s book publishers, the latest international children’s reading materials and aims to raise the overall quality of children’s reading materials, according to the CCBF website.

This year, the fair ran from 7 to 9 November and featured children’s authors and illustrators from China and overseas. Children’s literature critics, early childhood education experts, and publishers, amongst others, selected the winners and presented the Golden Pinwheel Awards.

Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.