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How family storytelling helps us grow

Award-winning South African author Maxine Case reflects on the role of intergenerational storytelling in preserving family history and supporting children’s literacy development:

During the school holidays, my sisters and I would join our cousins at our grandmother’s house. With 10 children underfoot, Ma had little time to devote to any of us, but she was fond of me. Like her, I was a bookworm. Ma knew that if she wanted to keep me quiet or out of trouble, all she had to do was give me a book.

Ma enjoyed historical fiction about various royal families. She’d sigh and say: “That Henry was a horrible man!” I’d know she was referring to Henry the Eighth, the English king who’d sent many of his wives to their death. “Yes, Ma,” I’d agree.

Sometimes we’d sit at Ma’s table while she drank her tea.  That’s when Ma would tell us her own stories, of visits to the home of her maternal grandparents, Johanna and Samuel September, and how hard she and her cousins were forced to work back then, unlike us who complained about everything!

Inspired by Ma, I began making up my own stories. My younger sister Lizanne was a captive audience. At night she’d climb into my bed and I’d tell her the next instalment in the lives of Little Chip and his brother, Big Chip – anthropomorphised snack foods. I’d start off originally enough, until eventually the capers of the two Chips began to resemble the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five I was reading then.

Now, as an author, I tell stories to a new audience but still keep up our family tradition.  When my niece Phoebe was younger, she became obsessed with the Little Miss series of books. During one visit to London, where she lives, I helped Phoebe write and produce her own little books. I suggested sentences and ideas and Phoebe, three years old then, filled in the blanks. All it took to make these personalised books was scrap paper, my rudimentary drawing skills and Phoebe’s imagination.

Phoebe is eight now and this year learned about Henry the Eighth at school. “You can imagine the questions she asked me,” her mother, my sister Bonita, told me. “I let her Google, but I’d forgotten all the gruesome bits!”

“You should have asked me,” I replied, thinking how wonderful it is to pass down stories.

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