PEN SA and PRAESA Seminar on Transforming Children’s Literacy and Literature

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Alice Bah Kuhnke

PEN South Africa and the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) held the first in a series of discussions on children’s literacy development and literature on Friday 22 January at The Homecoming Centre in Cape Town.

The discussion, ‘Raising key issues for transforming children’s literacy and literature’, was held in honour of Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke who is visiting the country. Last year, Bah Kuhnke presented PRAESA with the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) in Sweden, which she says “has drawn attention to the outstanding work of PRAESA and will inspire organisations all over the world.”

PRAESA Director and PEN SA Board Member Carole Bloch welcomed everyone by raising the central need to entwine children’s literature and literacy teaching as urgently in need of government and big business support – for ALL children and not just for children of English speakers and the elite.

“We as adults, with the help of books, can guide our children to treat the world with curiosity and respect” – Swedish Minister of Culture Alice Bah Kuhnke

Bah Kuhnke gave an address that set the tone for the rest of the discussion. Many years ago Bah Kuhnke attended a conference for young readers from all over the world where a group leader, a South African man who had fought against apartheid and was living in exile, told her that the key to changing the world was to do it ‘man to man, person to person’. This guidance on the importance of connecting with people changed her life, Bah Kuhnke said, “That’s the reason I’m so happy to be here. You can see me, I can see you and we have the opportunity to connect to change the world.”

Six speakers from various organisations in the children’s literacy field and other cultural organisations then gave short presentations punctuated by discussions with the audience, many of whom also work in the field.

Ntombizanele Mahobe from Nal’ibali spoke about children’s literacy and the importance of stories, saying that it is all of our responsibilities to create a national reading culture. She mentioned that PRAESA and Nal’ibali are using the Reading for Enjoyment Campaign to achieve this. Palesa Morudu, Managing Director of Cover2Cover Books, echoed Mahobe’s call saying that what is needed is a more visible campaign to make reading appealing. She also spoke about the recent call for literary decolonisation, describing how Cover2Cover Books have addressed this issue with the types of books they are publishing for teenagers.

PEN SA Board Member and African Arts Institute Executive Director Mike van Graan discussed the position of literature in South Africa’s cultural policy and spoke about the Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage of 2013. He said that twenty years ago we had a policy that speaks to the problems we’re experiencing today, but that it has not been implemented.

After a discussion break, translator and PhD candidate Xolisa Guzula spoke about language, ideologies and the implications of linguistic practices on language and literature development. She warned that the push for education to be in English leaves no requirement for the development of materials in other languages.

Discussing the uneven access to books across South Africa Genevieve Hart, Chairperson of IBBY SA, commented that, “You teach a child to read through enjoyment by reading a whole story, not from reading those remedial cards that many teachers use.”

Chairperson of Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, Elinor Sisulu, spoke about the lack of investment in the field and the complex administrative issues of applying for government funding. Bloch then acknowledged the many people in the room committed to making change and said that over the years there has been a huge shift in understanding the need to develop children’s literacy, however government support of these initiatives has been slow.

Bah Kuhnke’s final words were to emphasise the importance of seeing literacy as a democracy issue that should be treated with the same urgency as other issues that threaten democracy.

Text: Lindsay Callaghan PEN SA. First published at the PenSA web.

PEN SA and PRAESA’s series of discussions on children’s literacy and literature have been made possible by funding from PEN International. If you are interested in hearing about future discussions please contact

Photos: Carole Bloch, PRAESA.


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Visit to Nalibali reading club on Saturday January 23rd

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