My husband frequently travels to South Africa for work, and skypes with us from his hotel. On one long trip, he was able to go on a safari and bring us back pictures of the animals he saw. In my children’s eyes, South Africa the country consists of a hotel, a big office building, and a national reserve with exotic animals. While the big animals are amazing, and I would love to see them, I wanted to teach them about South African culture beyond the elephants, leopards, rhinos, buffaloes, and lions. We turned to our local library, and found wonderful, quality stories and pictures in children’s literature about South Africa. This list complements a unit on South Africa, diversifies teachers’ and parents’ reading lists, and would be a wonderful lesson for kids who might be traveling there.
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Children’s Books about South Africa
Before I begin with these picture books, make sure to check out Nelson Mandela’s autobiography for kids, a must-read on perhaps the most important leader of South Africa.
South Africa is located on the southern tip of the African continent. Packed in a country three times as big as the US state of Texas and roughly around the size of Colombia, is a huge linguistic diversity: there are 11 official languages, with Afrikaans and English having the largest number of fluent speakers. The most common language spoken at home is Zulu (~24%). This first book, Halala Means Welcome! by Ken Wilson-Max, introduces common words in the musical language of Zulu. My kids especially loved saying “umama” (mom), “utamatisi” (tomato), and “hamba kahle” (good-bye).
The next several books were chosen to present kids living in major cities in South Africa. The largest city is Johannesburg (pop. 1 million), followed by Soweto (pop. 858K), Cape Town (827K), and Durban and Pretoria (the capital) who both have half a million people. Often times Africa as a continent is portrayed as vast rural stretches of land with abundant wildlife (which does exist, but is not the whole story). There is a danger to a single perspective or stereotype, and kids should not be surprised to learn about bustling cities, where families live, work, and go to school. The following books about South Africa talk about some of the kids who live in South Africa’s major cities.
Somewhere in Africa, by South African authors Ingrid Mennen and Niki Daly, tells about Ashraf, a young boy from a large South African city who reads his favorite library book about fierce African animals and dreams of seeing them in person someday. This books is sure to dispel existing stereotypes kids may have about South Africa (or maybe Africa in general!), while showcasing the everyday scenes of a busy, vibrant city.
Niki Daly is also the author and illustrator of Not So Fast Songololo, What’s Cooking Jamela?, among others. Both of these excellent books take place in in ordinary families living in urban townships in South Africa. Not So Fast Songololo has a little boy (Songololo) helping his grandma (his Gogo) to go shopping in the city: getting on the public bus, navigating the chaotic sidewalks, crossing the busy streets, and in the end getting new “tackies” (tennis shoes). At the time it was published (in 1985, just before apartheid was ending), the book became recognized as a milestone in South African children’s literature, as the first picture book to depict a black child in an urban landscape. His books featuring Jamela also have a similar colorful setting, that give readers a glimpse into black children’s lives in modern, post-apartheid South Africa. We fell in love with Jamela and her antics to keep her chicken from becoming Christmas dinner (especially my animal-lover and quasi-vegetarian daughter Vivi:).
Armien’s Fishing Trip, by Catherine Stock, is a nice story about a young boy visiting his fisherman uncle in Kalk Bay (a fishing village turned suburb of Cape Town). The young boy hides on his uncle boat for an opportunity to go fishing at sea, and during a storm manages to aid in the rescue of a man overboard. In the story we gets bits and pieces of the ethnic and cultural diversity (names, dress, foods eaten) of the coastal town. South Africa has a huge coastline (3000 km, almost 2000 miles) on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and fishing is traced back thousands of years ago.
I specifically read the next three books about South Africa together one evening, because I knew they would prompt a conversation about poverty- not that it is their central theme, but I knew that my kids would observe this from the gentle stories and illustrations, and ask questions. All of the books tell stories about kids and their ordinary activities in their homes in what appears to be impoverished townships in South Africa.
The first book is At the Crossroads, by Rachel Isadora. In this story there are a group of kids eagerly waiting for their fathers to come home after months of working in the mines. The sweet children wait all night, until finally the truck shows up with their dads.
The second book, Charlie’s House, by Reviva Schermbrucker and Niki Daly shows Charlie creatively building a whole little house, complete with furniture and several rooms using clay and bits of anything he found on the street. The setting is his own corrugated metal house, where he lives with this grandma. Charlie is a sweet boy who is filled with contagious hope; my children were immediately talking about making their own clay houses outside the next time it rains.
The third story is a wonderful tale of a group of boys who love to play soccer. Goal! by Mina Javaherbin, tells how some clever boys play with a new soccer ball without the bullies of their neighborhood taking it. Kids around the world can relate to mean kids vs nice kids, and rejoice as the good guys win.
The last two books are stories from rural South Africa. The Gift of the Sun by Dianne Stewart tells the funny folk tale of Thulani, who keeps trading things from his farm in the market in the hopes of changing his fortune without a huge addition of work– yet each animal that he brings home is more complicated and requires more attention. In the end he finds that trading animals is quite exciting!
Elsina’s Clouds by Jeanette Winter is a touching book about a young girl who wishes to help her family during the dry winter months.
Following traditions, Elsina covers the walls with colorful paint, hoping to please her ancestors and encourage rain. Her designs work and she enjoys a fruitful harvest after so much rain. In the end we see that every year she is in charge of painting the walls (that last year’s rain has washed) and every year their crops grow bigger with the pouring rain. These last two books about South Africa are a contrast to the previous urban books- but show distinct lifestyles (rural, urban, coastal) within the country. When the collection is put together, it is a wonderful introduction to diverse South Africa! I hope you enjoy the books as much as we have:).
EDIT: The last book I’d like to mention is Shaka King of the Zulus by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema. “In a picture-book biography acclaimed for both its accuracy and beauty, Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema describe how Shaka, a brilliant military strategist, rose from humble beginnings to lead a mighty people nearly two centuries ago. It is an unforgettable story.” So neat for kids to learn about great kings of Africa!