Jay Heale

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 8:30-10:30 Room II

Speaker: Jay Heale (South Africa)


Macau IBBY presentation

Theme: “Reading of the Underprivileged Children”



Presented by Jay Heale. This is based on the original research and experience of Roni Snitcher, children’s librarian at Sea Point public library, Cape Town, South Africa.


“As I write this I am watching Alistair paging through a Where’s Wally book and next to him is a pile of Asterix books. He is a street child. Although he has a home, he lives with a gang of other kids out on the streets. We met about a year ago. He is here with a friend who is also reading. They are very quiet tonight. They never ask for money or food when in the library. The library is a sacred space for them. I am watching the reading of these underprivileged children. I feel proud and happy to be part of a library that attracts boys like Alistair and his friends.”

These are the thoughts of Roni Snitcher, a public librarian in Sea Point library. Sea Point is one of the most densely populated suburbs of Cape Town, not too far from the popular Waterfront area which many IBBY delegates visited during the 2004 IBBY Congress. The area provides a representative cross-section of modern South Africa: rich and poor people mixed – dozens of restaurants – plenty of shops – beach-front promenades. The long main street is well lit and busy into the early hours of the morning. There are luxury apartment blocks – and there are strip-clubs, brothels and haunts for drug trafficking. The joggers and walkers on the sea-front look well-off. Yet there are many strollers who are not, because ‘strollers’ is what we call street children. Some of them, and disadvantaged children from other sectors too, visit the public library where Roni is in charge of the children’s section. She is enthusiastic about this.

“Their reading will surely develop their sensibility in life. Their visual literacy is probably highly developed anyway, and the pictures stimulate them further. Alistair loves to own a book and I am sometimes able to spare him one of our book-sale books. He gives them to his Mom. His younger brothers and sisters benefit.

I grew up with a mother who read to me. I see the librarian as a ‘reading mother’, bestowing the riches of literature upon her children of the community. Where there is no apparent mother, I have to try harder. Where there is an actively involved parent, I encourage both the parent and the child.

We live in a society where privilege is the exception not the rule. Anyone involved in the practicality of social development sees very little of privilege. I know a boy whose father is in jail. He is twelve years old and a reader. His Mom is a trained teacher. It must make her so happy to see him read a substantial book almost daily. He is ‘the good child’. He has found a way to satisfy them both. His privilege is that his mother is book-conscious. Very little money comes into his home. The books he reads are very different from those that will be suitable for children who do not have a reading parent. The reading culture is not always readily available to children from disadvantaged homes. It is my strong feeling that they need books about themselves and their lives, books that sensitise them to familiar circumstances.”

At a public library, children are encouraged to become Members. But this requires a responsible adult to sign on their behalf. Once signed in, a child under twelve may take out five books at a time, keeping them for two weeks or longer if renewed. Every child has access to whatever that library offers – books, perhaps computers with internet access, storytelling sessions – but those children who are not members cannot take books home.

“I encourage donations of unwanted toys and have in fact brought my own grown-up children’s toys and puzzles and have had the pleasure of watching them entertain the children for whom they are a novel treat.”

The richer children who attend school should be the fortunate ones. Unfortunately – “What one hopes is happening is often very far from what is actually happening. Our Ministers of Education would like schools to have active libraries. But all the fine words in the world are not going to make up for the fact that very few schools have active libraries. The school nearest my public library in Sea Point has a library from which books may never be taken home. Another nearby school has a locked room in which old books are shelved.”

There are between 600 and a thousand street children in the city of Cape Town, of which Sea Point forms a part. In February 2005, Mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo vowed “no more street children in four months”. It hasn’t happened. One main problem is the tendency to create separate shelters and drop-in centres only for street children. This puts them apart from the rest of society. They cannot integrate with other children. So they continue to beg, sniff glue, steal, etc. To be warmly welcomed into a public library is the kind of integration which they need. A public library is there for the good of the community – and street children are part of that community.

The world outside can include exposure to gang warfare, murders, violent robberies, and still (in South Africa) unsolved unemployment and appalling housing conditions. So thousands of children live in shack homes, seldom attend school and are under-nourished.

“For ‘reading’ of underprivileged children one could substitute ‘feeding’ of underprivileged children, because both needs are equally difficult to meet.”

Such disadvantaged children have a short attention span. They like profusely illustrated books. They love stories read aloud or played from audio-book recordings.

“The sort of material I am looking for is to be much shorter, sharper, and very visual. My need is to attract children to literature by making them feel comfortable with the medium at the outset. My friend Alistair loves listening to the story of Pinocchio. I like to give them a rich diet of books including ones with children who look and live as they do.”

Here, Roni is stressing the need for indigenous children’s books. Some libraries have special shelves for African Picture Books or South African Stories. The number is growing steadily, though never fast enough. Like begging children anywhere in the world, Cape Town’s street children are fluent in a number of languages – particularly English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. The latter is probably their mother tongue, though any literacy they have acquired is probably in English.

Of course, not all the vagrants are children. There are plenty of adults who live on the streets as well. They are called bergies, people of the mountain. Listen:

It was late now, perhaps ten o’clock, and the bottles were nearly empty. The bergies dragged out the bits of cardboard they slept on, squabbling over who was going to sleep nearest the fire, but without real anger. They were mostly too drunk to care much. …

Kaatjie hadn’t gone to sleep. She liked it best when she did. That was the point, man. You drank until you didn’t have to care any more. Sometimes she even enjoyed herself. But tonight it hadn’t worked. Sometimes the magic in the bottle failed her and she had to keep thinking. Sometimes it even made the thinking worse, so that she could see more clearly and the pain inside her was sharper and colder; like tonight.

That comes from The Strollers by Lesley Beake, a South African children’s book now in its nineteenth reprint.

Roni Snitcher’s Dream Library would be for rich and poor children combined. It would have more staff, more books, an ever-increasing budget for replacement so that no one needs to worry too much if a book goes missing into an underprivileged home. There would be more stories with a local, relevant content.

“Books should be constructed in an indestructible fashion. Pages should be wipe-friendly. Money should be spent on strong and secure plastic covers. Motherly and fatherly men and women from the community should be engaged as volunteers to assist the busy librarians with ‘reading for pleasure’ projects in the libraries. One wishes for book tax to cease and this requires canvassing government. Improving lending services to children is the next important task. Schools should be assisted with block loans from public libraries. This facility is the exception, not the rule.”

However, Roni knows that her Dream is a long way away and she must make do with reality, and give her library an atmosphere of story and knowledge as far as her facilities allow. Her library is an increasingly welcoming safe place where children can spend many hours at a time. To conclude, she adds, “A library which has a loving librarian is a very special place.”