'Read like your life depends on it' - Tuelo Gabonewe

27 May 2020 - 10:18 By Carla Lever

Nal'ibali column No 17, Term 2 2020

What prompted you to write a children's book?

I have always wanted to write a book for small children. I started reading at a very early age and I’ll never forget how books used to make me feel as a little boy growing up in a dust bowl of a village in rural Bophuthatswana. I just had to pay it forward.

Animals are classic children's storytelling material! What drew you to creating the character of Hippo?

Hippos are incredible creatures! I’ve always been fascinated with their speed, grace and confidence on land and in water. The poor guys don’t get a lot of good PR because they’re not as cute and cuddly as some of their comrades in the African wild, and that’s why I chose them.

Lockdown is proving really testing for children and parents alike. Do you have any suggestions for ways that parents can use storytelling and creativity to spice up their everyday activities?

I saw a social media post a while ago of a man who asked his kids to draw him while he took a quick nap on the couch. The post could have been fake, but it still made me chuckle. Parents can come up with creative ways like that to get children to perform tasks that will stimulate them mentally. It’s even better when there’s more than once child in the house during this time. Find ways to get them to compete in a nice, healthy way. Reverse the roles and let them be storytellers. Try different things, but keep at it!

While libraries are closed under lockdown regulations, how else can we access reading material cheaply and safely?

This is a real challenge for parents and children. The internet is the obvious answer if parents and children run out of reading material during the lockdown. Parents will have to take the lead in this regard and make sure that they find suitable material to share with their children. Nal’ibali is a great place to start looking for free, quality content.

Hippo and his friends is available in all 11 SA languages. Why is that kind of print diversity important to you?

Children’s books written in Setswana were incredibly hard to find when I was a young boy growing up. I’m eternally grateful to all the translators who took the time to translate my little booklet into all our wonderful languages. We’re building this country for all of us. No child and no language should be left behind.

The book series is also a board book - made especially strong to withstand tiny hands! How can we teach children to love and care for books from an early age?

That’s a difficult one, as young children are negligent (we still love the little terrors) by nature. Parents should help the little ones take care of these prized possessions and never stop reminding the little cubs how important books are.

The book series focuses on building vocabulary, but also on building a love of reading. How can parents keep fun foremost in mind when reading to children?

Make faces. Jump up and down. Bark like a dog. Ask children to repeat funny sounds and movements so they feel like participants. Make it an event every time.

Award-winning illustrator Alzette Prins illustrated the book series. Is it hard handing over your characters to be reinterpreted by someone else?

I used to enjoy pictures in storybooks when I was a young boy, so much so that I spent hours and hours trying to teach myself how to draw. There was just something magical about them. I was excited when Alzette started working on illustrations for Hippo and His Friends, couldn’t wait to see what she would come up with. And what did she come up with? A cool, smiling hippo rocking a red bandanna. Knocked it straight out of the park!

What stories did you love as a child growing up?

I read all kinds of stories. I’ve always preferred fiction. My two favourite books when I was still about 11 years old were Hurry, Hurry, Sibusiso by Jenny Seed and Akpan and the Smugglers by Rosemary Uwemedimo. Fiction will always be to me what spinach is to Mr Popeye.

What message do you have for people who're interested in writing their own book one day?

Read like your life depends on it. When you’re done reading, find more books and read some more. Expand your mind to the size of Jupiter before you pick up that pen. Writing requires a strong vocabulary and half the general knowledge you find on a supercomputer, otherwise your writing will be as bland as porridge and won’t have enough depth and colour for anyone to want to bother with it.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org