Youth lit in South Africa

18 April 2011

It’s an interesting time to be a youth writer in South Africa.

International trends change almost daily. One day vampires are all the rage, the next its ghosts or angels or even steam punk. South African authors are far from asleep to what’s happening abroad. Lily Herne, for example, just published South Africa’s first zombie novel, Deadlands; the Trantraal brothers released their second graphic novel last year, and John van der Ruit’s Spud was adapted into a feature film starring John Cleese.

Our writers have their fingers on the pulse.

But what sets local writers of youth fiction apart is the depth of their stories. South Africa is a young democracy. As children we witnessed bleak times in the country, and as adults we live through the repercussions of that history. We’re a multicultural country, with eleven official languages, and different traditions and beliefs. Naturally, the stories echo all of this.

The Sanlam Youth Prize is an annual award for youth literature that best addresses the year’s chosen theme. It’s a much sought after accolade.

Notable examples of previous winners include Gill D’Achada’s Sharkey’s Son, which won Gold at the Sanlam Youth Literature Awards in 2007. The book is set in the West Coast and follows the journey of a boy searching for his father who has gone missing.

Jenny Robson’s Praise Song, about the murder of a choir mistress in a township, deals with the frightening epidemic of HIV, while remaining a gripping read. The novel received a Sanlam Gold in 2006. Robson is the first author to ever win four consecutive prizes in the Sanlam Youth Novel Competition. This prolific writer’s critically acclaimed Because Pula Means Rain, is the heart-breaking story of an albino boy living in a rural village.

South Africa also has a wealth of youth novels written in indigenous languages. Marita van der Wyver’s Die Ongelooflike Avonture van Hanna Hoekom (another Gold winner), was recently adapted into a feature film. Dumisani Sibiya, who recently earned a Sanlam Gold for his Zulu novel Ngiyolibala Ngife, has won the Sanlam Youth Prize three times!

Another award that recognises excellence in local youth literature is the MER Prize for Youth Literature, that forms part of the Media 24 Books Literary Awards, held annually. Afrikaans youth novelist Fanie Viljoen won the award in 2006 for Breinbliksem, the story of a teenage boy living with his dysfunctional family. The book was also adapted into a play. My own novel, The Goblet Club, about a kid who falls in with the wrong crowd won in 2008, while Peter Dunseith’ Bird of Heaven, about a Swazi sangoma, won last year.

This year the shortlists are Adeline Radloff’s Sidekick, Derick van der Walt’s Willem Poprok and Elizabeth Wasserman’s Speurhond Willem op reis.

South African youth literature can be seen as an excellent way of teaching young people about their culture, their history and issues that affect their daily lives.

The recently published Solomon’s Story by Judy Froman is the true story of Solomon Mahlangu who was executed by the state in 1979. John Coetzee’s Black Swan Down is set in a Johannesburg mining town in the 1950s. These stories can be seen as learning tools, that make literature and history more accessible.

Crime writer Joanne Hichens wrote the youth novel, Stained, in 2008, about the parallel stories of two families that touches on teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

Joanne says a youth novel should include a good story first and foremost, peopled by believable and rounded characters, and a plot with pace.

“I think that we need to be writing the kinds of stories kids can really tune in to – in SA we have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to explore local stories and settings and create fiction that is rooted in the kind of experience unique to South African children and young people,” she says.

Youth Literature isn’t only meant to teach readers valuable lessons about life; it’s also meant to entertain.

Lily Herne’s Deadlands, set in Cape Town ten years after the World Cup, is a thrilling story about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. It’s edge-of-the-seat reading. Another whopping read is Andy Petersen’s Daniel Fox and the Jester’s Legacy, a fantasy novel about a kid who lands up in a waiting room in the underworld. Rumour is its set to be a trilogy.

It’s pretty clear that South Africa has a well established youth lit scene, with more novels coming out every month. (My friend Maya Fowler, for example, is releasing her youth lit novel As jy ‘n ster sien verskiet, in June.) There are so many youth writers I haven’t mentioned in this post: Edyth Bulbring, Alex Smith, Carina Diedericks-Hugo to name a few. It gives an indication of just how large the kid-lit scene is in South Africa. (Incidentally, I’ll be on a panel with Edyth at this year’s Franchhoek Literary Festival about writing for teens.)

Let’s hope the momentum never stops. Maybe one of these days we’ll be setting the trends for the rest of the world to follow.

Love
Sally

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