I first met Crystal Warren when she presented a paper on HIV&AIDS in South African children’s books at the Potchefstroom University conference on children’s literature in 2007. Although I was in the process of leaving South Africa at the time (I had literally moved out of my house, but not yet made it to the airport), I knew we were kindred spirits. When I discovered I would be traveling through Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape recently, I determined to stop and visit her and the marvelous collection at the National Literary Museum where she works.
Although it was only begun in the 1960s, NELM archives more than 30,000 books and magazines in English by southern African authors of the past 200 years. They include authors who have spent significant time in the region and write about it, so I am proud to say that several of my titles are on their shelves.
The collection includes both printed books and manuscripts that are personally consulted by about a hundred and fifty people a year from all over the world. Staff answer hundreds more long distance queries by e-mail or telephone. Although children’s literature is not their primary domain, they have about 4,500 titles in their collection. Crystal, a trained librarian and director of the research department, presented me with a bibliography of their current holdings for children related to HIV and pulled several of her favorites from the shelves. She proudly showed me the large number of new children’s authors published since the political and cultural changes of 1994.
Collections are stored in the waterproofed and humidity-controlled basement of one of the many historical buildings that make this university town such a delightful place to visit. Grahamstown hosts the immensely popular National Arts Festival every year. NELM promotes author readings at that time and houses an exhibition. This year the World Cup inspired the theme of sports in South African literature. NELM also has an exciting outreach program that organizes activities like a storytelling camp in a nature reserve, or the study of a local author’s work with a visit to the home she lived in as a teen. Such camps expose children from a variety of cultures to the riches of the language and encourage their own writing and presentations.
It was fun, not only to renew my friendship with Crystal, but also to see this creative program promoting English literature in southern Africa. I was pleased to add my Wisconsin pushpin to their impressive map of researchers.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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