When COVID-19 struck, Emily Briggeman suddenly found herself with a lot of time on her hands. Her mother suggested she do a home school project to pass the time, and maybe earn a passive income. So she wrote a book. And now the thirteen-year-old published author of Tribes is the youngest storyteller at the inaugural South African Festival of Children’s Literature.
“I’ve always loved reading,” she said. “I’m such a big book worm, and I’m always reading all the time. All those books inspired me to go places in my imagination when I couldn’t do it physically anymore. And now I always think about new plots and stories and book titles, and write them down when I have an idea.”
Briggeman was speaking at the opening of the South African Festival of Children’s Literature, a three-day celebration of the power of reading to ignite imaginations and transform lives. Hosted by the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Heartlands Baby Sanctuary and Booktown Richmond, the event brings together dozens of South Africa’s best authors and illustrators, from poets like Diana Ferrus to academics like Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan (Dinosaurs of Africa), from literary professionals like Fred Khumalo to TV personalities like Zoë Brown.
Tribes tells the story of young Grace Millar, who is 13 years old and thinks she is invisible. But then one note leads Grace on a journey of mystery, self-discovery and a secret world, which changes everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.
The Festival is the brainchild – and passion project – of Darryl David, the man behind Book Town Richmond, BookBedonnerd and the Madibaland World Literary Festival; and the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans at UWC’s Faculty of Education.
“Writers of youth literature never get to win the Nobel Prize,” he said. “They never get the credit they deserve. Even at university, the genre of Children's Literature is the poor step sister of the Literature studied in English and Afrikaans in the Humanities. But with the first South African Festival of Children’s Literature, the Cinderellas of the literary establishment are going to the ball. This is one of the most important festivals of the year – and one that I believe can make a real difference to the lives of children.”
“The vision and mission of our school is to serve with love,” said Kamla Maharaj, Principal of Clarendon Primary School, whose excellent library unit was honoured with a special Children’s Literature Festival Award. “Reading is the core of that. My heart is filled with joy when I look at the animated faces of the children and the librarians when they begin to read. There’s nothing like opening a brand new book, and diving into the world it reveals. As WB Yeats said: ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ And that is the fire we would like to ignite in our children.”
Fanning Imaginary Flames: A Story Of Hope
“As an educator, and as a parent myself, I don’t have to be convinced of the importance of reading, and the place it should have in children’s lives. But the benefits of reading, as research shows and our Festival participants will tell you, are significant and permanent,” noted Professor José Frantz, UWC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and innovation.
That’s particularly important in a country where, as a recent StatsSA report showed, 40% of children aged 0 to 6 are never read to at home, and where 60% of households do not own a single book. These children are unlikely ever to become passionate readers – and to become the leaders we need to transform our societies.
“A reading child is so much better-equipped to deal with the rigours of school, where a degree of dexterity of language is required to understand what is being taught, irrespective of the subject. So we celebrate those whose work sparks a passion for reading – and we hope to fan those sparks into flames.”
The Festival is also intended to raise funds to help the Heartlands Baby Sanctuary to look after the abandoned, abused, orphaned, neglected and sick babies and children entrusted to their care.
“At Heartlands, storybooks have a special place and value,” said Monica Buitendag, CEO of Heartlands Baby Sanctuary. “Stories can create other words, and convey emotions and ideas that textbooks just can’t. They can teach empathy, and take children on terrific journeys, and teach them empathy. Stories, in short, are magic.”
And that magic is needed now more than ever.
“Five years ago, we didn’t know what lockdown meant, and we never would have imagined that the world as we know it would be turned upside down. Amongst all the uncertainty ahead, I would like to end off with the quote: ‘Let us still be grateful – not for all the material things given to us but for the small ways that we give something to others.’.”
The South Africa Festival of Children’s Literature runs from 2 to 4 July 2021, all online and all for free – and all for the love of books! For more information, to view a full programme, or to register, please visit the SA Festival of Children’s Literature page. And please do feel free to make a donation or set up a monthly donation. http://www.heartlandsbaby.org/donate.html.