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Books Column: Goodnight, Ben: There’s magic in children’s books

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Children’s minds are unfathomable, and why certain books resonate in them while others do not, remains a mystery.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve read at least 50 books so far in 2021.

Granted, they’re almost entirely all children’s books, read aloud to my three- and five-year-old after their bath, but that’s neither here nor there: a book is a book, right? If audiobooks count, then by God so do picture flats.

When you live a transcontinental life with children, you learn interesting lessons about children’s books. For instance: they stick within their home markets more stubbornly than books for adults. Bestselling novels from the US and UK regularly slip their moorings and cross the oceans, destined for foreign parts, but illustrated titles, it seems, less often dare the waves.

Take the works of Julia Donaldson: it’s true that The Gruffalo has made inroads in America, but you’ll look long and hard before stumbling upon a copy of The Everywhere Bear at a local library or secondhand bookshop there. (As for What the Ladybird Heard, for the scarce American edition they’ve swapped “ladybird” for “ladybug”, to which there’s only one proper reaction: ugh.)

Conversely, I was stunned to learn that my wife, who is from South Africa – and comes from a bookselling family nogal – had never read the American classic Goodnight Moon until it became part of our kids’ bedtime routine. Can it be that some readers of this column are in a similar state, with minds unilluminated by the goings-on – or lack thereof – in the great green room? I want to say Goodnight Moon is the perfect children’s book: Margaret Wise Brown’s text is utterly looney (“Goodnight nobody… goodnight mush”) and Clement Hurd’s illustrations are among the most atmospheric you’ll ever hope to encounter. It carries me away, even today.

Several books from South Africa enjoy pride of place on our shelf of favourites alongside the Donaldsons and the Browns. CA Davids’s indie-published The Hair Fair, about a hair salon for kids in the Bo-Kaap, has become a family classic, as have Zukiswa Wanner’s Refilwe, a retelling of Rapunzel, and Refiloe Moahloli’s How Many Ways Can You Say Hello? Niki Daly’s Where’s Jamela? also finds itself retrieved by little hands with great regularity in our house. It has a chicken in it called Christmas: how could you go wrong?

Children’s minds are unfathomable, and why certain books resonate in them, while others do not, remains a mystery. Having read something like 1,000 children’s books in the past five years, however, I can attest to three elements that give any story an immediate advantage, when it comes to keeping kids’ interest: farm animals, sleep and food. Farm animals are endowed with just the right amount of magical but non-threatening strangeness, while sleep seems to deliver a story arc’s perfect denouement. Food, of course, is the eternal subject of every child’s anxieties and hopes.

Speaking of food, if there’s one universally-available children’s book in the English-speaking world, it’s Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Carle hit upon a mysteriously perfect cadence of the verbal and visual in his book, which has been part of children’s lives for more than 50 years now. His caterpillar will be eating its way through pears, pickles and slices of chocolate cake in kids’ dreams for at least 50 more.

It’s late. The neighbour’s chickens are asleep on their roosts. The chocolate bar that helps me power through the wee hours has been reduced to a mere wrapper. (But I am still hungry.) This column’s done, more or less. Goodnight, Ben. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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