- African Children’s and Youth Literature at the Dawn of the 21st Century
An oft-overlooked field in the scholarly discipline of African literatures, indeed literature in general, is children’s and youth literature. JACYL (Journal of African Children’s and Youth Literature), under the direction of Osayimwense Osa of Virginia State University, has long championed the cause, with the guest editors of volumes 15–16, Robert Muponde and Pippa Stein of South Africa, gathering together papers from a 2002 conference in Botswana that offer an update on developments in the field in our new century.
As Muponde and Stein note in their introduction to the special issue, the study of children’s literature in Africa has been shown minimal support in major African universities and there is no journal on that continent that specializes in the study of children’s literature. We might add that African children’s literature is rarely accorded more than a nod in major research organizations on other continents as well, except among some educationists and librarians of children’s literature, when they have access to materials. Too often children’s literature is waved away because its primary focus is considered to be entertainment alone.
The papers in this collection represent the individual and in some cases collaborative work of African (from Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe) and American researchers of children’s literature, which the editors have defined as “the study of genres of oral, visual and written texts which are produced for children and young people (as readers, viewers and listeners),” and which are of interest for “the social, historical and material forces which are embedded in their creation, production, design, distribution and reception.” The editors note that [End Page 155] sometimes the term “children’s literature” includes adult literature with themes of childhood, and that its works can act as “force fields” that create communities and reveal “alternative worlds of being and knowing” (xi).
The special issue presents eleven articles intending to “reposition the child”—not as passive and mute victim, but as an agent engaged with alternative worlds and outlooks. The articles reveal that the world of the child includes rape, AIDS, discrimination based on race and gender. It is one where destructive colonial practices persist in the postcolony. Given that many schoolrooms in Africa are closely modeled upon the European system, there are questions and concerns about how life and the classroom converge to allow for children to find and assert meaning. Betsie van der Westhuizen’s “On the Wings of a Story by Aggrey of Africa: Fly, Eagle, Fly!” illustrates “the traveling story,” that is, the story that reaches beyond political, social, and chronological borders. James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey’s story bears resemblance to the tale of “the little train that could” that is beloved by young Americans and their parents, instilling a sense of can-do in children. Van der Westhuizen considers the history of Aggrey’s story as oral tale told by him to American children at the beginning of the twentieth century, told by him to children in his later journeys in Africa and Great Britain, then later still as a printed story retold by a South African Anglican bishop, Christopher Gregorowski, and illustrated by Niki Daly at the dawn of the twenty-first century, with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These versions and revisionings are studied for the different meanings intended in the telling: as an encouragement to the peoples of Africa to set their sights high, as a reminder to black American college students to keep focused on their responsibility to Aggrey’s vision for black peoples, as spiritual solace to a dying child, and as inspiration to a later generation of children to fulfill their potential. As van der Westhuizen concludes, stories contribute to the mapping of our personal and social reality, and are always open to reinterpretation. A story like Aggrey’s retains its popularity—through time and across...