Our Burning Planet

BOOK REVIEW

The Phoebe Book of Poems for Children – an ode to our continent’s natural beauty

The Phoebe Book of Poems for Children – an ode to our continent’s natural beauty
The Phoebe Book. Composite image: Maverick Life

Sectioned into categories of animals both wild and domestic, earth and sea, tree blessings and the miscellaneous, Patricia Schonstein’s latest book is an invitation to celebrate the beauty of Africa’s natural environment.

“I love that it’s got so many beautiful poems about animals, Africa and animals.” — Caitlin, aged 8

The Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaks in her Ted Talk, titled The Danger of the Single Story, of how, as a very small child, her reading of British and American children’s books — which she loved — inevitably influenced her earliest writing and took away from the firsthand experience of her own country and culture. 

These imports from other cultures would be termed “the single story”. They resulted in all her characters being white and blue-eyed apple-eaters who played in the snow and drank ginger beer, even though, as a child, the author had never sipped ginger beer, let alone experienced snow. 

Novelist Patricia Schonstein’s illustrated book, The Phoebe Book of Poems for Children, is the opposite of the single story. It’s for children from Africa, about the African natural world, focusing on animals and their environment. A book that has its roots in Africa but whose big global heart reaches out beyond the continent.

While children’s stories have been around, at least orally, since the beginning of communication — often to teach a moral lesson, give a warning or serve as a taboo — the modern children’s book only emerged 300 hundred years ago in England. That was when, according to historians, childhood became a concept due to two influences: the current philosophies of childhood innocence and a growing middle class.

Schonstein, who was born in Africa of European descent, and was also immersed in British books as a child, came to address the paucity of “African” books for children when, during the 1980s, she opened a non-racial pre-school in opposition to apartheid. This was in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), in the Eastern Cape, and storytelling played an important role in her teaching. She explains that “there was a need for stories with a strong environmental, multicultural and African flavour, appropriate to a changing South Africa. At the time, few such books were locally available.” 

She began writing Afrocentric storybooks and poems focusing on the care of the earth. These she used in her own classes and then shared with other educators, eventually publishing them and conceptualising what she calls Seed Readers. 

This vision has recently intersected with that of dynamic businesswoman, Sarah Clayton, in response to an incident of extreme cruelty enacted by children towards a puppy. Under the instruction of their father, they had tortured the helpless animal and set it alight. Luckily, a passer-by heard the puppy’s anguished cries and rescued her, at which point Clayton stepped in, funding specialist treatment, adopting the puppy and naming her Phoebe. Through the process, she began to understand that cruelty to animals can be the result of ignorance.

Her concern was that if you can commit such brutality against a harmless puppy, how does this escalate to humans? She was also aware that teaching a child to be abusive and schooling them in cruelty amounts to child abuse.

Clayton subsequently founded the Cactus Foundation Africa, based in Lusaka and Johannesburg, which focuses on all animals at risk – wild and domestic. This has translated into a veterinary clinic, a centre for unwanted animals, staff training and an educational child centre. It also addresses the question of ignorance, illiteracy and child abuse.

Schonstein, an award-winning novelist and poet, is one part tender heart and one part steely resolve. She views herself as an envoy for peace and light, called to shift negative mindsets and acts of cruelty through storytelling. She walks her talk. For example, in celebration of her 50th birthday some years back, guests were given a choice of either planting a tree or funding straw for cart horses in lieu of gifts.

Having heard of and become engaged in Phoebe’s plight, Schonstein’s aim for the collection of poems is to “awaken our sensitivity to other living creatures” and to remind us that they are not ours to abuse, but are in fact our companions.

Her concern is with the “plight of the defenceless, whether it’s the child, animals, or the ecosystem.” She hopes to “plant a few seeds in little people who will one day be the big people who make decisions”.

The book, which was originally launched at the McGregor poetry festival in 2022 – with Phoebe herself present as ambassador – marks a full circle in Schonstein’s prolific writing life. Whereas her adult fiction poses the deep often unanswerable questions of life, she views this children’s book as a contribution to healing.

Half the poems in The Phoebe Book of Poems for Children are from her acclaimed Sing, Africa! Poems and Songs for Children, and half are new creations written specifically for this book.

The work is sectioned into categories of animals both wild and domestic, earth and sea, tree blessings and miscellaneous. Their messages of beauty and hope are carried by rhythm, rhyme and repetition. The text is visually supported by the colourful, realistic but unfussy illustrations of Izak Vollgraaff. 

Many children will not be fortunate enough to see a wild animal in their lifetime, but the poems in the book serve as a bridge to bring them closer to an imagined experience. It draws on the imagination stimulated by accurate illustrations and words that evoke the grace of a giraffe or the power of an elephant or the peace of trees.

Schonstein commented that she is also “noticing that modern and especially urban children don’t see the natural world”, and she hopes she’s “succeeded in making the poems vivid and that they instil a wish to actually see a butterfly, actually see a chameleon”. For, as she says, “not seeing should not make you not care”. 

The book is an invitation to celebrate the beauty of Africa’s natural environment. As a takeaway from this book, Schonstein wants each child to develop a steely internal resolve so that even if someone else is acting cruelly to an animal, they can choose not to.

For the first print run, The Cactus Foundation arranged that each copy sold would back a free copy, many of which went to critically ill children in a Lusaka hospital. Those children are honoured at the back of the book.

The Phoebe Book of Poems for Children is a fun tool for educators and parents alike. Schonstein is clearly on a Phoebe roll. Look out for her next two books also starring Phoebe, but for older readers. 

The first one, titled Phoebe Finds a Home and due for publication later this year, aims at 10-year-olds and traces Phoebe’s story without being overtly graphic. Forgiveness and redemption are the overarching themes. 

The second book in the series is written around the theme of saving elephants from hunters. 

In them, Schonstein introduces the Cactus Crew, comprising the original, but reformed, perpetrators and others who team up to care for the earth. DM

The Phoebe Book of Poems for Children is available here and in South African bookshops.

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