Nomsa Mdlalose brings story time to pupils from Phumelela Primary School at KwaMashu library. PICTURE: NQOBILE MBONAMBI
We grew up listening to stories narrated for us by our grandparents, parents and other elders in the family. Those were the good old days, when we would lie beside the fire as they took us on a fantasy journey with their tales.

These stories formed such vivid images in our minds that we could have sworn we were there.

Most people would agree that those were the stories that helped us learn some important lessons in our lives. They taught us about good and evil and had a hand in making us the people we are.

Now, with technology’s influence on our lives and with working parents over-extended, the art of storytelling has become rare. Storyteller and children’s book writer Nomsa Mdlalose endorsed the idea that one of the most important things parents can do, beyond keeping children healthy and safe, was to read to them. Stories contributed to children’s intellect by developing their thinking skills, introducing new vocabulary and inspiring young minds, she said.

“Books are about faces, colours, numbers, dreams, dogs, journeys and jobs. Books are about how we live, how others live, how people lived in the past. Books celebrate the universe of childhood and illuminate experiences and emotions that are not easy to explain,” she said.

Each story in her books has a theme and message relevant to children. There are lessons about secrets – distinguishing between good and bad, the power of sharing and friendship, making sense of and managing feelings, normalising experiences of separation, what you can and can’t change, encouraging seeking help, coping strategies and cultural differences.

Mdlalose, who has self-published five children’s books in four languages – Zulu, Setswana, Afrikaans and English – said it was important to read to children in their mother tongue, as this gave them authority and confidence in who they were.

Her favourite story from her books was When Eagle Could Not Fly, a tale about an eagle that went to great lengths to grow wings and realise its dream of flying.

“It teaches children the importance of hard work, determination and perseverance – traits we can all agree are crucial in life. The lesson here is that anything is possible. If we read, like eagle we can accomplish bigger things.”

A firm favourite with the little ones was A Frog With A Problem, a story set in the animal kingdom where animals had to pay rent, either on land or water, depending on where they lived. This was something of a dilemma for the frog, who lived on land and in the water but couldn’t pay double rent.

“The lesson here is about the importance of being honest when faced with challenging decisions,” Mdlalose said.

Internationally acclaimed children’s writer Dianne Stewart, who is based in KwaZulu-Natal, said a love of language and reading had to be cultivated in children when they were young.

“We need to ensure that South African children are read to and that they read for themselves from a young age, and that they read a variety of international and local classics,” she said.

Stewart’s advice to parents wanting to buy books for their children is this: “A good book entertains the child or arouses his curiosity about the world. It needs to have strong content and a good structure.”

She said illustrations were important for a young readership. Luckily for parents, South Africa has no shortage of children’s literature.

“If you look past the Disney on the shelves, under the category of local writers, you’d be amazed at the number of people writing for children in South Africa.

“South African readers need to seek them out, as they do local music. If a writer is able to get their work published, it no doubt encourages them to produce more books for the local market,” she added.

To get children reading, Stewart said parents needed to read themselves, to show their children that reading was a priority.