Continuing our fairytales campaign!
Tiny Owl have published, and continue to publish, many fairytale and folk tale retellings from around the world in our One Story, Many Voices series. We think fairytales and folk tales should be preserved as they help to convey important messages for children, but only if they’re in keeping with modern values. (We’ve previously discussed this issue in our blog ‘Are fairytales still relevant today?‘) That’s why we’re launching a campaign to promote the importance of reading traditional stories from different cultures, and to consider ways that we can update them for contemporary readers. We’re interviewing experts to hear their views!
We started with a brilliant interview with authors Elizabeth Laird and Pippa Goodhart. Next we spoke to another wonderful author, Alan Durant!
In 2018 I was awarded an Artist International Development Fund grant by the British Arts Council. The fund is designed to enable an artist to develop his skills and profile in a country outside the UK. I chose South Africa and my project’s intention was to explore the link between the traditions of written and oral storytelling. The inspiration came from my previous trips to South Africa and a workshop on writing for children that I ran in Cape Town. One of the participants, a Xhosa woman, performed a story in her own language. I didn’t understand a word, but I was mesmerised by the performance. I’m an award-winning writer of over one hundred children’s books, half of which have been picture books, which are my particular passion. The sound of the words, their musicality, rhythm and tone, fascinates me. Picture books like poems are written to be read aloud. For me they nearly always begin as stories I tell orally first and then write down on paper. My most recent picture book, Quill Soup, is a retelling of the traditional tale Stone Soup which was recommended to me by my good friend and collaborator, the illustrator Sam van Riet. I chose to set it in Africa with indigenous animals (it usually features humans) and it has been illustrated by Cape Town-based artist Dale Blankenaar. It was recently published in the UK by Tiny Owl, a small press run by an Iranian couple, so it has very much been an international project! The book will be published soon in South Africa by New Africa Books in all eleven official written languages. Very exciting!
I am indebted hugely to Carole Bloch and the acclaimed Cape Town-based early literacy research and development organisation PRAESA who have acted as my host for this project. The aim was to recruit storytellers representing all eleven different official languages for two workshops to take place in early October – one in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg – and then again the following February. We were particularly interested in hearing from storytellers who had no (or little) publishing experience but had a real passion for stories and for communicating them with their own (as well as the wider) community. With the help of a number of agencies we managed to gather around twenty storytellers from across the country for each workshop. The Arts Council grant allowed me to help participants with travel and subsistence expenses.
The workshops ran over two days and offered an opportunity to share experiences of creating and telling stories for children through discussion, performance, writing exercises and more. One of the desired outcomes was to develop ideas that might eventually become accomplished written stories. I was delighted that the New Africa Books publisher Dusanka Stojakovic showed considerable interest in the project and was in attendance at both workshops. We subsequently discussed the possibility of producing an illustrated anthology for children containing one story in all eleven official written languages. At times since getting this collection together has seemed a Sisyphean task, but I think we are nearly there! Although all the storytellers involved in the project speak English, for only one (a young storyteller originally from Malawi) was it their native tongue. I wanted to produce an anthology of stories that would each reflect the language and culture from which they came, while having themes that would be of relevance to the world beyond. What I did not want is a collection of stories written in English and translated into the other languages. For some of the storytellers this has proved a challenge: they are so used to resorting to English as their default written language, though their oral tales are told in their mother tongue. I also wanted the storytellers to get away from simply retelling animal fables and moralistic tales. I believe all good stories teach something – even if it is just that it is good to laugh – you do not need to sermonise. Children want fun stories well told and that is what these stories are. I am determined that this will be a collection of stories of the highest quality.
We are also now approaching illustrators and have some major names on board, including Piet Grobler, Joan Rankin, Jude Daly and Dale Blankenaar.
Although I know a project like this can be no more than a drop in the ocean and, some might say, more of symbolic than actual value, I believe that every little helps in helping to inspire children from all the different cultures of South Africa to want to read. I’ve seen how much good work is being done here in trying to raise literacy levels and enjoyment – I had an inspiring afternoon for example with a group of enthusiastic mothers in a predominantly Muslim area of Cape Town during my last trip – but of course there is much more to be done. Getting stories for children in their own language, with strong cultural relevance, and really well told, is surely key.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this project for me is the opportunities it has afforded storytellers with very little writing experience to put forward their stories for publication. Already some have been published in South Africa by Book Dash and are submitting to Nali Bali because of the confidence that this project has given them. I spend a lot of time mentoring new writers in the UK and it is something I am passionate about.