Why do we want to celebrate a day for reading aloud to children? Is it to teach them to listen? Is it to get them to hear and learn more words so that their vocabulary increases? Or is it to enhance their mother tongue or in order for them to grasp an additional language? Or to learn about plot and how to sequence events? All of these and several other educational achievements have a good chance of unfolding in children who grow up on a diet of rich stories. Although such outcomes are often recognised as the ultimate intended outcomes of literacy teaching, there is a more significant purpose to encourage a persistence and delight in stories: it is to stimulate and nourish our humanity.
Highlighting the significance of imagination and narrative, in Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life Molly Andrews suggests that the link between imagination and stories is so profound that asking why this is so, is to ask why we are human. Daniel Taylor talks about the essential invitation of story, with its formative and healing powers: "Join me in my experience, let's go through this together. What has been true (or painful or beautiful, or good, or puzzling) for me might be so for you".
And it goes deeper – as social beings and storytellers by nature, the only way that we can know ourselves is through knowing others. Ryszard Kapuscinski's challenge in The Other is "...to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves... To understand ourselves better we have to understand Others, to compare ourselves with them, to measure ourselves against them." In today's political climate, these words feel like rain in a drought.
In his 1961 classic on young children's learning, From Two to Five, Russian poet, translator and writer, Kornei Chukovsky urged "at whatever cost", the need to share stories with children to foster "compassion and humaneness – this miraculous ability of man to be disturbed by another being's misfortunes, to feel joy about another being's happiness, to experience another's fate as one's own."
From their earliest days, children have serious urges, concerns and questions. Who loves me? Am I safe? Who is my friend? Why do people hurt me? Why isn't it fair? Such critical issues arise for them, as they do for adults, as binaries of love and hate, good and evil, joy and sadness, greed and generosity.
This involves the imperative to stimulate children's imagination; it is when a child participates wholeheartedly in imagined lives, that we can make sure that he or she "can escape the narrow frame of his eccentric interests and feelings". It implies that teaching children with great stories offers the chance to counter prejudice and bigotry, by encouraging empathy and nurturing a sense of justice. This is why we need to know what stories are available, choose carefully and use languages children understand. It is also why authors in South Africa who write for adult audiences should consider their potential younger readership. Children are thirsty for relevant stories. There are so many still waiting to be written.
But we have to choose stories to read aloud now; each day is an opportunity to explore ourselves through each other's stories. How do we know which stories are appropriate? It's a complex discussion which must be aired. For now, let's say that great stories offer challenges and choices. From their earliest days, children have serious urges, concerns and questions. Who loves me? Am I safe? Who is my friend? Why do people hurt me? Why isn't it fair? Such critical issues arise for them, as they do for adults, as binaries of love and hate, good and evil, joy and sadness, greed and generosity. They deserve no less than to explore these big, and sometimes scary themes with us when we take time to share a story.
Share a special story with the children in your life this World Read Aloud Day, February 16. Nal'ibali, the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, has issued a brand new story in all 11 official languages and is inviting South Africans to join them in reading it out loud to children on this day. To access the story and let Nal'ibali know how many children you will be reading to, visit its web and mobisites: www.nalibail.org and www.nalibali.mobi.