- Seedlings: English Children’s Reading and Writers in South Africa by Elwyn Jenkins
In this new collection, all the essays relate in some way to South Africa and to children, but they do not pretend to offer a comprehensive introduction to South African children’s literature. One should thus not view Jenkins’ text as a history or analysis of South African children’s literature as a whole, but rather allow the loose links between chapters to open up an initial route into this complex national literature. Jenkins explores a wide range of topics and, more specifically, what he calls South Africa’s “three great contributions” to world literature: “the folktales of its peoples; books about its magnificent animals, plant kingdoms and landscapes; and stories which document, grieve over, and celebrate our history” (5). For example, he analyses tales by and about the San people. Jenkins discusses the fact that European fairy tales are actually more easily available than South African children’s literature and more widely read, even though the San stories are in many ways more relevant. He suggests that a way forward for South African books would be to include “retellings of stories and creative integration of San words and lore” (32); in other words, if South African writers would allow themselves to learn about, and be inspired by, their native culture, this could benefit children’s literature (and, presumably, literature for adults as well).
Another topic Jenkins tackles is peritexts/para-texts in South African children’s books, and here he offers an interesting analysis of how the covers of South African books are sometimes changed when they are published abroad, which thereby affects how South Africans and their culture are viewed. The issue here, he says, is that the continent of Africa in general and South Africa in particular are portrayed in ways that reflect [End Page 97] what foreign readers want to believe. Thus paratextual changes end up strengthening readers’ stereotypical views of South Africa rather than challenging them. A third subject of this book is on repeated themes/characters, such as the honey-guide bird which has been cheated by humans and so takes out his revenge on them. Here Jenkins writes about how the honey-guide bird is depicted in children’s books and how this is relevant to South African culture and literature. He suggests that “[t] he lesson to be drawn from this is that humans should not be greedy, but should live in harmony with nature” (36).
In other chapters, Jenkins discusses specific authors. In one, for example, he looks at various English-language authors who lived in and/or were inspired by South Africa, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Rudyard Kipling. Many readers may not know that Tolkien was born in South Africa and that some of his early memories from that country seem to have shaped his Lord of the Rings series, so this chapter provides insight into some classic works. Further chapters introduce South African writers whose names are likely be completely unfamiliar to readers outside the country, such as Nellie Finder, Pauline Smith, Cecil Shirley, and Kagiso Lesego Molope, who describes herself as an African feminist and whose books reflect this. Cecil Shirley, for example, was the author and illustrator of Little Veld Folk which “was one of the last in a tradition of illustrated books in English about little South African animals” (102). What is remarkable about Shirley is that he produced this work despite having no arms.
The strongest and most interesting parts of this book are those in which Jenkins explores South African children’s literature more generally and gives overviews of particular topics, rather than those sections in which he analyses a particular text or author. Race is an ever-present subject here, and, of course, is a major subject in South African history and literature. Much of what Jenkins discusses seems to return to the idea that white writers and white topics have taken precedence in literature for children in South Africa. For instance, he...