A few weeks back, I visited Heerengracht Primary School in Eldorado (South Johannesburg). The headmistress, Mrs Daniels, has an infectious enthusiasm which sweeps you up as you enter her school and I ended up volunteering to run a story writing competition for her grade 6’s.
I always love visiting schools, the energy is just contagious, however, little did I realise to run a competition properly I would need to put in a lot of work. I first set up a rubric to mark to, then I started to read and assign marks for each section I had created eg. front cover, illustrations, credits, story length, did the story engage me, overall impression etc. It was a process that took several hours, though was, I must say thoroughly enjoyable. Isn’t it just amazing the stories kids come up with, I definitely feel there are some budding authors that will emerge from this school in the future.
So, when I returned to award prizes of my book to the winner, I explained how the pupils how the competition had worked and why we need a start, middle and end, to our writing as well as the other criteria I had used.
The competition was amazingly close between the top four stories, but one, in particular, engaged me a little more than the others, that of The Little Rabbit by Veandre. It had everything a short story needs, was the right length and left me wanting to read more by this young author. Congratulations, Veandre for producing a wonderful piece of work and to Heerengracht Primary School on the quality of stories, your teachers should be very proud of you.
The runners-up were Jordan T, Bailey and Lebohang.
TIP #3 SNITCHING V’S BULLYING
So, what is the difference? The main difference here is the intent.
This is often difficult for kids especially as they get older. They often will NOT report something that SHOULD BE reported for fear of retribution from the bully as well as their peers.
My book How Polly Became a Pirate is being used in schools in Johannesburg, South Africa to help younger kids up to 12 years old get around the problem of ‘snitching’. At the end of each chapter, there is an interactive page where they can ‘talk to Polly,’ here they can say if they or anyone they know is being bullied and even draw a picture of what the bully looks like.
So far it has been successful in identifying bullies at schools because students don’t feel they are snitching, but rather chatting to Polly. Parents have also found this useful in identifying problems their children are having which they didn’t even know about. It is almost like writing a diary but to Polly.
Earlier in the year, Polly headed off on her holidays. She visited Ireland, where she met many new friends and a few odd ones too.
There were Saints, Kings and Queens at Dublin Airport…
Castles, old churches and pubs…
as well as music shops, gypsy caravans and faerie forests, for her to visit, she had so much fun.
I walked around to the back of the marquee and cried, I couldn’t stop the tears. I was glad I had worn shades. Then I walked back into the marquee, having given myself a pep talk – “You can do this Jann, it’s important. These are the children you wrote the Polly Series for because others are too afraid to write about disabilities.”
Ok, pep talk over, I was there to do a job.
Polly had been invited to talk and read at a CP Awareness Day. So, what is CP? It is Cerebral Palsy. I knew it existed and could be severe, but until Saturday I didn’t realise the degrees of CP there are. As children arrived, some so severe they just lay them gently on blankets, or in the ball pit, others in wheelchairs, or with walkers. I could feel the tears welling up again and looked to Kim for support,
“Think it’s going to be an emotional day,” I said, she just nodded and I noticed she had her shades on too.
Then it was show time. It’s amazing, after the initial flutter of butterflies, as soon as I fix on a child, the words always seem to come. I think it is something about the expectation in their faces and not wanting to let them down that does it for me. And well, these were the children I had written for.
It had all started back at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympic Games. In his closing speech, Sir Phillip Craven (a paraplegic Paralympian himself,) told of how a young boy was reading with his mother. In the book, he saw a man with an eye patch over one eye, a hook for a hand, a parrot on his shoulder and a wooden leg. When asked who it was, he said: “Well, he has only one leg, so he must be an Olympian.” Such was the strength of the London 2012 Paralympics that it changed peoples’ perceptions of disability forever as well as my own.
I had always admired Oscar Pistorius racing on his blades, as well as Natalie du Toit swimming like a fish in the pool, but the more I researched, the more I had gained so much admiration for these athletes. I realised the dedication it takes to be a top class athlete who is able-bodied, let alone one who is disabled. (I have a gym 250m from where I live at the end of the road, and I can’t get my sorry butt down there,) These athletes train every day through the pain and I can only take my hat off to them, they really are super athletes.
Over time, I made friends with some disabled athletes, Nur in particular. It started on Facebook, there we started chatting. I didn’t realise he was blind and put my big foot right in my mouth. “But how can we be chatting, I mean, how do you read what I am typing?” I asked him, astonished that we had been able to converse so easily. TECHNOLOGY was the answer, of course, his phone read out what I had typed (NO MORE SHORTHAND!) I still haven’t met Nur, or Natalie du Toit, but I will one day.
That closing speech sparked something in me and I quickly googled PIRATES/PARALYMPICS/BOOKS. There was nothing. ‘That’s ridiculous I heard myself thinking.’ I typed in another set of keywords around DISABLED/KID’S BOOKS/PIRATES. Still nothing. So, I went to Amazon, ‘There must be a book here.’ I found myself thinking. Still nothing.
I’m not sure if I was more shocked or disappointed that there wasn’t a book with that connection for children and mentioned it to a friend.
“Then write one,” she said.
Just like that. Write one. So I did, and am I glad I did, because, last Saturday I was able to share that first book with some very special children, their siblings and parents. I think we sometimes forget the able-bodied siblings, but for them, my characters resonated too.
Polly and her pirates get up to all sorts of antics in the Polly’s Piralympics book, there’s climb the rigging gymnastics, walk the plank diving, a three-legged race as well as a Pirate Masterchef competition, amongst many other events. The pirates learn about cheating, not bullying as well as how hard it is to be in a wheelchair.
There are currently 5 books in the Polly’s Piralympics Series. They all have a strong anti-bullying and disabled themes through them, and teach that disability does not mean inability, and bullying is not cool, it’s for a fool.
I think my reading/talk was well received judging by comments afterwards, and am so glad I accepted the invitation to the CP Family Awareness Day. I personally walked a path I did not expect to but would walk it again tomorrow if asked.
Last Saturday I met someone very special who touched my heart. His name was Rikus. I had already spoken at the Cerebral Palsy Family Awareness Day and was watching the children. Then I saw Rikus eating a biscuit he had made with his mum.
Rikus has severe CP, he can’t talk, walk, do anything for himself and his mum explained they don’t really know how much he can see. So Polly took over, she’s very good at that. Polly by the way, is my alter ego in the form of a parrot puppet who accompanies me to schools and events.
She asked Rikus if she could have some of his biscuit and was immediately met by a smile that stole her heart. She tucked and rubbed herself under his arm and the reaction was immediate. She went on to give him a kiss. I don’t think either I or his mum expected the reaction we got as Rikus made a clicking sound.
“He wants another kiss,” his mum told me.
Polly continued to interact with Rikus for about half an hour, and every action brought a reaction from him, from smiles to contorted gestures indicating pleasure and lots and lots of clicks which were returned with kisses from Polly. As our time drew to a close, I realised that Polly’s bright colours could indeed be seen by Rikus and her and my voices could be heard by him. So, if you are ever in any doubt as to whether someone who is severely disabled can communicate, just take the time to find out. Polly did, and her life has been changed forever, as did mine, for as I write this piece and look back over the photos I smile, because this young man was so happy that day, and it felt good to make a difference.
After touring the Eastern Cape last April, I was lucky enough to be visiting Port Elizabeth and met up with the owner of Fogarty’s Book Shop.
And guess what?
My books are now available at Fogarty’s Book Shop in Walmer Mall. So if you are looking for middle-grade books for your youngsters for the Christmas Holiday’s, why not pop in and take a look at my Polly’s Piralympics Series. Loads of fun, interactive pages to draw on and get involved with Polly and the crew.
Or for younger readers there are my colouring-in story books the Toucane Series, teaching about not throwing down rubbish, how a friend is a friend no matter their colour and stranger danger. 4-8 years.