• What can we read?


    WHAT CAN WE READ? : An Overview of Recent South African Youth

    Literature (A paper presented at the ISASA School Librarians’

    Conference, Grahamstown, July 2011)


       Crystal Warren

       National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown



    In looking at ways to encourage children and teenagers to read more, it is useful to know what books are available for them to read. South African literature is not publicized as it should be, with few spaces for reviews available. Yet there are many fine books being published which would be good additions to schools or libraries catering for teenagers.

    In this paper I will give a brief overview of recent publications, focusing on young adult fiction in English published in the last few years. This will hopefully raise awareness of the books which are available, and highlight some of the authors working in this field. This is not a comprehensive listing of all books published. That would be long and unwieldy, and not very helpful. I will be looking at books published in the past few years, so that they will still be in print. I will note some of the most significant books, some of the more prolific authors and some themes and trends.

    A good way to promote books, for any age, is to link with films. One only has to note the common “film tie-in” covers of many books. There are at least three South African films based on books on circuit.

    Spud by John van de Ruit needs little introduction. With its sequels, Spud: The Madness Continues and Spud: Learning to Fly the series has been a publishing phenomenon and shows no sign of slowing down. A film, starring John Cleese, can only add to the excitement. While not specifically marketed as young adult fiction, and appealing to a cross-over market, this is nonetheless a book which is ideal for teenage readers, and has proved itself popular with this group. Set in the early 1990s, each book is a witty account of a year at boarding school, with the story told through Spud’s diary as he reflects on the changing country, his school life and his eccentric family. The books are funny and well written, with one last volume in the series still to come.

    Hanna Hoekom is an Afrikaans film based on the novel by Marita van der Vyver which has been translated into English as The Secret Life of Hanna Why. It is a humorous story of a young girl trying to figure out who she is, and to cope with her unusual family dynamics, a situation complicated when her mother remarries and insists on a family holiday. A flood traps Hanna, her pregnant mother, gay father, test-tube brother, new stepfather and two step-brothers, plus their mother, in their holiday home.

    A more serious novel, Crossing the Line by Lutz van Dijk, has been filmed as Themba (with the novel reissued as Themba: A Boy Called Hope). The novel follows Themba’s journey from rural poverty to membership of the national soccer team, while exploring the impact of abuse and the challenges faced by Themba, who is HIV positive.  Van Dijk has another novel dealing with AIDS, Stronger than the Storm, with the focus on a young girl, looking at sexual abuse, and the secrecy surrounding AIDS and rape.

    There have been several soccer themed books in the past few years, and it is likely that the enthusiasm generated by the Soccer World Cup will encourage people to continue reading sport books. Teenagers and children spend a lot of time playing or watching sport, so this is always a useful link. One of the strongest of the World Cup themed books is The Billion Dollar Soccer Ball by Michael Williams. Deo sees his family and village wiped out in Zimbabwean political violence. He manages to save his brother and they flee, with all their money hidden in an old soccer ball. The novel follows their adventures as they seek refuge, eventually crossing illegally into South Africa where they encounter the exploitation of illegal aliens and xenophobia. The boys find themselves caught up in the xenophobic riots in Alex, and Innocent is killed. Deo loses himself in drugs but is finally saved when a youth worker notices his soccer talent and he finds himself part of a programme to prepare for the Homeless World Cup. Through all his trials, his love for soccer sustains him and proves his path to redemption and healing. Williams has written several critically acclaimed youth novels and his latest is well-written, moving and powerful.

    Youth literature in Afrikaans, and internationally, is filled with series books yet until recently this has not been a feature of English South African fiction. We now see several authors bringing out books about the same characters, such as the Spud series. Zachariah Rapola has three novels featuring Stanza, a street-wise young man living in Alexandria. Rapola is a television screenwriter, which shows in the fast-paced and somewhat episodic nature of the books. After  Stanza on the Edge and Stanza and the Jive Mission Rapola produced a World Cup themed story, Stanza’s Soccer World Cup. Stanza must juggle his delivery work with his involvement in his brother’s band and his growing obsession with street soccer, or diski. He starts a mini-league, which spreads through Alex, eventually coming to the attention of the powers that be, and raising the possibility of  six-a-side matches being curtain raisers at the World Cup. His plans are threatened by a corrupt businessman who is using soccer for match fixing and a cover for illegal activities.

    S.I. Brodrick has written a series of books featuring a group of teenagers involved in rock-climbing: Gap, Rockface and Runout. The sport is the backdrop for stories of friendship, romance and rivalry, and shows the protagonists learning to overcome adversity.

    Not quite Young Adult Fiction, but still suitable for, and likely to be of interest to, older teenagers is Fiona Snyckers’ Trinity books. The first in the series, Trinity Rising, covers a student’s first year at university where she must cope with moral dilemmas and intellectual challenges. The novel deals with serious issues such as anorexia, sexuality, identity, struggling with studying, yet with an engaging style and quirky humour. If you want to get your older teens reading, this is a good book to have. I have seen students walking down the street nose in book, and heard of lecturers and teachers confiscating copies because they were being read in class. The second book in the series, Trinity on Air, is set a few years later and shows Trinity trying to forge a career in radio journalism.

    New Africa Books has a particularly interesting series, Siyagruva. The books are written by different authors, yet feature the same group of teenagers, linked by their love of dance. Fast paced stories, yet simply written, these are ideal for reluctant readers, or second language readers not comfortable with English. Well-known authors such as Robin Malan, Russell Kaschula and Anne Schlebusch have written stories. Recently published novels include From Belhar to Bollywood by Clive Smith, In the Fast Lane and A Mozambican Summer by Nokuthula Mazibuko, Flipside by Karen Jeynes and Eeshaam September and Jacques Attack by Karen Jeynes and Nkuli Sibiko.

    Another recent trend is the increasing interest in science fiction and fantasy. While in the past there has been a fair amount self-published, and the occasional speculative fiction novel from commercial publishers, the last few years show a lot more variety of fantasy, magical realism and science fiction being produced.

    Young readers are sure to be interested in seeing a book written by one of their peers. Andy Petersen was 16 when his novel Daniel Fox and the Jester’s Legacy was published; he wrote the first draft when he was 14. But it is not only for the age of the author that this book is recommended. It is, quite simply, a delightful book, and won the Percy FitzPatrick Award for Youth Literature in 2010. The book starts with the death of the hero who then finds himself in the underworld, at the headquarters of the Elite Lower Lords. This is an unusual and refreshing take on Hell. Daniel must find a way to navigate through this world, to find out who he can trust, and foil a plot by the king to escape from Hell with his demons and take over earth. The novel is interesting and engaging, leaving the reader hoping for a sequel. It is hoped that this is the first in a series, as there are several loose ends that need to be tied up.

    Sidekick by Adeline Radloff won the Sanlam Award and was shortlisted for the MER Prize for Youth Literature. It features a spunky teenage girl who is the unlikely sidekick to a flawed superhero with the ability to freeze time. K. Sello Duiker’s last novel The Hidden Star was published posthumously and is an appealing blend of magic realism, fantasy and African folklore, yet set in a modern township. Featuring a young girl on a quest, this has been marketed as a cross-over novel, blurring the boundaries between teenage and adult fiction. Arbormoss by Jens Pieper is an environmental fantasy where a teenage girl is given powers by aliens to help prevent the destruction of Earth. Other, less impressive, but still worth noting fantasies are: Children of the Moon by L.M. Brickwood, Emily and the Battle of the Veil by Karen Michelle Brooks and Jade and the Serpent’s Circle by Maggie Fikkert.

    Of the recent science fiction, the most noteworthy are novels by François Bloemhof, Lesley Beake and Jenny Robson. François Bloemhof’s City at the End of the World was originally written and published in Afrikaans, then translated by the author. It is set in 2084, a world where teenagers rule and they all aspire to be called to The City, a mark of success. The protagonist is selected to go to The City, a future Cape Town, where he is caught up in a plot to overthrow the regime. Lesley Beake’s Remembering Green also depicts a future Cape Town. Aimed at slightly younger teens, it is set in a future of global warming and environmental devastation where the oceans have risen, drowning cities. A young girl is kidnapped from her rural home in the dry interior and taken to an island city (on the top of Table Mountain) where technology is failing and the Tekkies hope to use her to restore the rain.

    Jenny Robson has written two impressive science fiction novels – The Denials of Kow-Ten and Savannah 2117 AD. Savannah is set in a dystopic future where animals roam free in Africa while the people are kept in reserves. The Denials of Kow-Ten shows a society where the ideals of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged have been applied, with devastating effect, as the powerful live in enclaves of privilege while the rest of humanity struggles in a wasteland.

    Robson has many critically acclaimed books in print. Most explore issues of identity and prejudice. Of the more recent novels Praise Song depicts the murder of a teacher when she discloses her HIV positive status, while Because Pula Means Rain explores prejudice in Botswana, where a teenager with albinism is shunned by villagers.

    Much of the published fiction for teenagers deals with serious issues. In John Coetzee’s Dance of the Freaky Green Gold,  the focus is on environmental concerns and the power needs of South Africa. Scientific experiments to turn algae into biofuels form the basis of the story, which has elements of mystery and romance, touching on environmental issues, mistrust of strangers, and making a new life after parental divorce. In Black Swan Down, Coetzee explores alcoholism, father-son relationships, friendship and second chances. Roy lives with his alcoholic father and  must contend with school bullies, social workers threatening to remove him from his home, and uneasy relationships with his father and grandmother. He finds solace in his hand-made canoe on the lake, which is the catalyst for much of the resolution which occurs.

    Shiva’s Dance by Elana Bregin blurs the boundaries between teenage and adult fiction and is a story about the pain of secrets and the way they alienate us. When a teenage girl finds out a terrible secret about her father it complicates her already fraught relationship with her mother. A visiting Buddhist monk is able to help her to understand her troubled life in a different light.

    Soliloquy by Stephen Finn is a dark and disturbing novel. Told in the form of a diary of a teenager being tried for the murder of another boy, it gives a harrowing insight into the effects of bullying. Fuse by S.A. Partridge also explores school violence, bullying and abuse. The main character is abused at home and bullied at school. When a fellow victim suggests fighting back by blowing up the school he is drawn to the idea, with disastrous results. The Goblet Club, also by Partridge, is a darkly gothic tale which embraces magic, mystery and intrigue as a group of students plot to poison their sinister headmaster.

    Several novels explore the impact of politics, especially apartheid, on teenagers.

    Linzi Glass has two novels set in the recent past. The Year the Gypsies Came is set in the 1960s and shows a dysfunctional family in a disturbed society. It covers issues such as police brutality, neglectful parents, abuse and rape as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. Ruby Red is a coming-of-age account set against the background of the 1976 Soweto uprisings and explores first love, anger and courage. It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, one of the most prestigious British awards for children’s books.

    Gaby Halberstam lived in South Africa until she was 15 and draws on that experience for her novel Blue Sky Freedom, which is set in South Africa in the 1970s and inspired by the death of Steve Biko. Against a backdrop of black consciousness and the Soweto uprisings, a young white girl is drawn into the struggle when her childhood friend goes on the run from the police.

    Dancing in the Dust by Kagiso Lesego Molope depicts the teenage experience in the townships in the 1980s, a period of school boycotts, struggle politics and soldiers in the townships. Molope gives a woman’s perspective on the struggle years, as well as a welcome account of the coming of age of a young black woman. Her second novel, The Mending Season, shows a young girl attending a formerly white school, where a racist incident shows how much work still needs to be done on race relations.

    Afrika by Colleen Craig shows a teenage girl accompanying her South African mother when she returns to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The hearings open her eyes to the tragedy and brutality of South Africa’s past and shed light on her own troubled family history. Nokuthula Mazibuko’s Freedom Song moves between 1988 and 2008 and shows teenage activists who are recruited into MK. They are reunited in 2008 where they work together to uncover corruption in a government department, and rekindle their romance. Bua, Comrade! by Thiathu Nemutanzhela is set in the 1980s and shows a rural youth who moves to Alex to further his studies but is drawn into political activism.

    Beverley Naidoo has written several novels dealing with apartheid and was the South African nominee for the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2010. Her more recent books have looked at the impact of other African conflicts on children and teenagers. Burn My Heart is set in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, while The Other Side of Truth and its sequel Web of Lies follow two Nigerian children who flee to England as refugees after their mother is killed in political violence.

    Dianne Hofmeyr has several recent novels exploring the distant past. Eye of the Sun is a historical adventure set in ancient Egypt, where a young girl uncovers a plot to kill the prince and steal his throne. The story is continued in Eye of the Moon. The Waterbearer, set in the distant past, follows a young man’s adventures as he sails down the east coast of Africa in a dhow and is captured by warriors from a great inland kingdom. Fish Notes and Star Songs touches on the power of San rock art and the story of Sarah Baartman, as three teenagers pass through a cave wall into the past. Peter Slingsby’s classic novel The Joining covers similar terrain, with teenagers travelling into the past and entering the world of the San. Long out of print, The Joining has been reissued in English and translated into Afrikaans, Sesotho, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

    Take Me to the River by Russell Kaschula, a coming-of-age story set in the rural Eastern Cape, was written in English and isiXhosa and published simultaneously in both languages. Mama, I Sing to You, also by Kaschula, shows a young man torn between tradition and modernity. Alternative Realities by Jackie Nagtegaal, written in Afrikaans when Nagtegaal was 16, has now been translated by the author and is an account of a weekend in the life of a rebellious teenager.

    Poverty, homelessness and crime are concerns which affect many teenagers, and many novels depict this harsh reality. Written in Water by Becky Apteker and City Kids by Merle-Anne Braithwaite focus on street children while Secret Celebrity by Deborah Ewing deals with human trafficking. Sello Mahapeletsa’s Tears of an Angel and When Lions Smile explore crime, poverty and gang violence. The Boy with the Guitar by Mabonchi Goodwill Motimele looks at xenophobia. 111 Colleen Court by Mogamat I. Davids is the story of a young girl growing up on the Cape Flats where she experiences poverty, crime and gangsterism, but also friendship, family and community.

    In some stories crime is the backdrop but the novels have a more gentle tone.

    Sharkey’s Son by Gillian D’Achada is a gentle but well-written tale of a 13-year-old boy living in a fishing village on the west coast. When his father vanishes he goes on the run, trying to find his father and evade the authorities, as well as some criminals who are also looking for him. Jesse’s Story by Fiona Macgregor is a story of family, first love and crime, showing the impact on a boy’s life when he is mugged. Katy of Sky Road by Dianne Case and Yvonne Hart depicts a teenage girl’s quest for independence and romance and was written to portray a more positive view of life on the Cape Flats.

    The Summer of Toffie and Grummer by Edyth Bulbring deals with serious issues such as alcoholism and anorexia, yet they are handled with humour. When her mother goes into rehab, Beatrice must spend the summer holiday with her grandmother in a small west coast village. She reluctantly makes friends with a local boy, Toffie, and embarks on a matchmaking quest to find the perfect man for her recently widowed grandmother. Pops & the Nearly Dead again shows a teenager spending time with a grandparent. In this case a young boy must spend three months with his grandfather in an old age complex. Melly, Mrs Ho and Me follows a teenage girl as she adjusts to the divorce of her parents, a new school, and figures out who she wants to be. Bulbring also has a fantasy adventure for younger children, Cornelia Button and The Globe of Gamagion as well as an adult novel, The Club (originally written for the teenage market, but reworked for adults) and is a name to watch.

    This brief introduction shows that there is no shortage of South African fiction for teenagers.  What is needed is for teachers, librarians and parents to make this material available. It is hoped that reviewers will write about these books, libraries will stock them, and teachers will use them in the classroom. And that teenagers will read them.


    Select Bibliography

    Apteker, Becky Written in Water. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2007. 172p.

    Beake, Lesley Remembering Green. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2009. 111p.

    Bloemhof, François City at the End of the World; translated from Afrikaans by the author. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2008, 2009. 105p.

    Brain, Helen No More Secrets. London: Hodder Education, 2009. 132p.

    Braithwaite, Merle-Anne City Kids. Pinetown: KZN Books, 2006. 64p.

    Bregin, Elana Shiva’s Dance. Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2009. 168p.

    Brodrick, S.I. Gap. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2006. 240p.

    Brodrick, S.I. Rockface. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2006. 192p.

    Brodrick, S.I. Runout. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2006. 284p.

    Brooks, Karen Michelle Emily and the Battle of the Veil. Cape Town: Ispirato, 2008. 296p.

    Bulbring, Edyth Melly, Mrs Ho and Me. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2010. 133p.

    Bulbring, Edyth Pops & the Nearly Dead. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2010. 311p.

    Bulbring, Edyth The Summer of Toffie and Grummer. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2008. 128p.

    Case, Dianne and Hart, Yvonne. Katy of Sky Road. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2007. 185p.

    Coetzee, John Black Swan Down. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2007. 147p.

    Coetzee, John Dance of the Freaky Green Gold. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2008. 106p.

    Craig, Colleen Afrika. Toronto, Ont.: Tundra Books, 2008. 233p.

    D’Achada, Gillian Sharkey’s Son. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2008. 115p.

    Davids, Mogamat I. 111 Colleen Court. Glosderry: New Africa Books, 2005. 112p.

    De Villiers, Leon. Shorn; translated from Afrikaans by Elsa Silke. Pretoria: LAPA, 2009. 172p.

    Donald, David Call on the Wind. Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2007. 124p.

    Duiker, K. Sello The Hidden Star. Roggebaai: Umuzi, 2006. 232p.

    Dunseith, Peter R. The Bird of Heaven: The Story of a Swazi Sangoma. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2009. 257p.

    Ewing, Deborah Secret Celebrity. London: Hodder Education, 2009. 106p.

    Fikkert, Maggie Jade and the Serpent’s Circle. Johannesburg: Iziza Publishing, 2009. 270p.

    Finn, Stephen. Soliloquy. Claremont: David Philip, 2008. 143p.

    Glass, Linzi Ruby Red. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2007. 218p.

    Glass, Linzi The Year the Gypsies Came. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2006. 267p.

    Gongo, Phakamile The Boy from Selamanzi. Georgeville: Manx, 2007. 142p.

    Halberstam, Gaby Blue Sky Freedom. London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2008. 273p.

    Hofmeyr, Dianne Eye of the Moon. London: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 313p.

    Hofmeyr, Dianne Eye of the Sun. London: Simon & Schuster, 2008. 325p. Sequel to: Eye of the Moon

    Hofmeyr, Dianne. Fish Notes and Star Songs. London: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 199p.

    Jeynes, Karen and September, Eeshaam. Flipside. Claremont: New Africa Books, 2007. 81p.

    Jeynes, Karen and Sibeko, Nkuli Jacques Attack. Claremont: New Africa Books, 2004. 92p.

    Kaschula, Russell H. Mama, I Sing to You. Cape Town: Bateleur Books, 2006. 85p.

    Kaschula, Russell H. Take Me to the River. Glosderry: New Africa Books, 2006. 109p.

    Macgregor, Fiona Jesse’s Story. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2008. 135p.

    Mahapeletsa, Sello Tears of an Angel. Cape Town: Kwela, 2007, 2008. 139p.

    Mahapeletsa, Sello When Lions Smile. Cape Town: Kwela, 2003, 2005. 89p.

    Mazibuko, Nokuthula Freedom Song. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2009. 105p.

    Mazibuko, Nokuthula A Mozambican Summer. Claremont: New Africa Books, 2005. 84p.

    Molope, Kagiso Lesego Dancing in the Dust. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2004. 187p.

    Molope, Kagiso Lesego The Mending Season. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2005. 127p

    Motimele, Mabonchi Goodwill The Boy with the Guitar. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2007. 140p.

    Nagtegaal, Jackie. Alternative Realities; translated from Afrikaans by the author. Parklands: Genugtig! 2007. 109p.

    Naidoo, Beverley Burn My Heart. Johannesburg: Puffin, 2007. 194p.

    Naidoo, Beverley Journey to Jo’burg. Essex: Pearson Education, 1985, 2006. 77p.

    Naidoo, Beverley The Other Side of Truth. London: Puffin, 2000. 227p.

    Naidoo, Beverley Web of Lies. London: Puffin, 2004. 215p. Sequel to: The Other Side of Truth.

    Nemutanzhela, Thiathu Bua, Comrade! Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2007. 104p.

    Partridge, S.A. Fuse. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 2009. 218p.

    Partridge, S.A. The Goblet Club. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 2007. 138p.

    Petersen, Andy. Daniel Fox and the Jester’s Legacy. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2009. 282p.

    Pieper, Jens Arbormoss Cape Town: Struik, 2007. 117p.

    Pinnock, Patricia Schonstein Skyline. Cape Town: African Sun Press, 2007. 191p. First published: Cape Town: David Philip, 2000.

    Radloff, Adeline Sidekick. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2010. 199p.

    Rapola, Zachariah Stanza and the Jive Mission. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2006. 150p.

    Rapola, Zachariah Stanza on the Edge. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2001, 2006. 80p.

    Rapola, Zachariah Stanza’s Soccer World Cup. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2009. 154p.

    Robson, Jenny Because Pula Means Rain. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2000. 133p.

    Robson, Jenny The Denials of Kow-Ten. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1998. 142p.

    Robson, Jenny Praise Song. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2006. 128p.

    Robson, Jenny Savannah 2116 AD. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2004. 141p.

    Slingsby, Peter The Joining. Cape Town: Baardskeerder, 2010. 143p. First published: Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1996.

    Smith, Alex Agency Blue. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2010. 161p.

    Smith, Clive E. From Belhar to Bollywood. Claremont: New Africa Books, 2007. 88p.

    Snyckers, Fiona Trinity Rising. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2009. 373p.

    Van de Ruit, John Spud. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2005. 389p.

    Van de Ruit, John Spud: Learning to Fly. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2009. 412p.

    Van de Ruit, John Spud: The Madness Continues… Johannesburg: Penguin, 2007. 341p.

    Van der Vyver, Marita. The Hidden Life of Hanna Why; translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2007. 168p.

    Van Dijk, Lutz. Crossing the Line; translated by Karin Chubb. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter, 2006. 148p. A film tie-in edition issued in 2010 as Themba: A Boy Called Hope

    Van Dijk, Lutz. Stronger than the Storm: A Novel for Young Adults about HIV and AIDS in South Africa; translated by Karin Chubb. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2000. 106p.

    Williams, Michael. The Billion Dollar Soccer Ball. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 2009. 218p.





    Categories: Volume 3