As we commemorate the Day of the African Child this week, with the theme “30 years after the adoption of the Charter: accelerate the implementation of Agenda 2040 for an Africa fit for children”, I thought of reflecting on the importance of children’s literature and the role it plays in the lives and development of children. The fact that children’s literature is an essential component of language programmes in the training of teachers at most universities and teachers’ training colleges is a testimony of the crucial role literary works play in the education and development of children, especially during their formative years. Once the reading habit is instilled in children during their early years, this is carried on and developed further in adult life. Modelled around oral tradition, children’s literature has been in use in society in various forms since time immemorial.
Simply put, children’s literature refers to literature that is written for children by adults. Instead of the traditional storytelling performed face to face for children, in today’s modern society these stories are written in different forms and formats to appeal to the young minds. Some types of children’s literature include comic books and graphic stories, biographies of luminaries, heroes and heroines, myths and legends, religious stories, fables and animal stories, stories on fantasy, adventure stories, fairy tales, folk tales, and plays. Children’s poems, songs and lyrics also form part of children’s literature. Each of the abovementioned genres of children’s literature is created with a special goal. In other words, the authors of the books have central messages they are communicating to the young readers. Some children’s books are there to entertain children, and others to inspire them to succeed or do great things in life. Others develop children creativity in various ways, while others extend children’s knowledge in a number of phenomena they encounter and interact with in their environment and beyond. As children learn from the events and characters they encounter in the books they read, their emotional intelligence and imagination develops too.
The general practice for authors of children’s literature has been to produce books that teach morals and cultural values of their societies. In the words of researchers Lea Baratz and Hanna Abu Hazeira (2011, p.33), “Children’s literature is operated and distributed on the basis of faith, whereby if there is a place for effective links between literature and society, then it will naturally be found first in children’s literature. For the most part, children’s literature is goal-directed, and amongst its targets is the assimilation of sociocultural values … the traditional values of the past, the valid ethics of the present and the aspiration to provide values for the children of the present with the vision that they will make society better in the future when they receive civil status.”
It is the society’s milieu, the social and cultural environment, that progressive authors use to produce children’s literature. Here, I use the term ‘progressive authors’ to make a distinction between those who produce good and bad children’s literature. It is, therefore, imperative for parents and teachers to add literature that fosters the appreciation and pride of their cultural heritage in children in their homes and classrooms. In other words, children’s literature must assist children in building a self-concept or identity through reading books that extol the values and beliefs of their society. What this means for schools is that multicultural children’s literature should be made available because of the cultural diversity of learners, especially in cosmopolitan areas where there is no major dominant indigenous language. Care should be taken to avoid children’s literature that promotes gender and racial stereotypes to avoid discriminating against sections of society. Parents and teachers should, therefore, carefully scrutinise the literary elements of plot, characterisation, setting, theme and style of each children’s book to determine its suitability for young readers. This should be done because there are books which have content that is not appropriate for children.
As we celebrate the Day of the African Child, I call upon parents to buy children’s books for their children. Some of the criteria of choosing progressive literature for children given above should be taken into account as guidelines in the selection of suitable literature for your children. In today’s world of technology and digital communication, literature is not restricted to printed books only; there are also many e-books for children that are available on the internet.
It is also my call that parents and schools should promote children’s literature written in their mother languages first before considering other languages. This is in line with some of the reasons why the Day of the African Child was established, as stated in this quote: “In 1991, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the then OAU (Organisation of African Unity, now African Union) instituted the DAC (Day of the African Child) in memory of the 16 June 1976 student uprising in Soweto, South Africa. At that time, students marched in protest against the poor quality of education they received, and demanded to be taught in their languages.” The brave children of South Africa fought for their rights against the apartheid monster in their motherland. We salute them, and pay our reverence to their act of bravery today.
As you read this article, pause and think about the rights and welfare of children across Africa. Take action by buying a progressive children’s book for your child. Assist your child to develop a reading culture, which will emancipate and empower him or her.