The Woman who made me Fall in Love with Afrikaans Words only to Realise that she was Actually Writing in English and was an American

Helen

I remember my pre-school growing up years in two phases – a phase where we lived on two farms, although I actually only remember the second farm. Of the first I only have two memories – one where I received my soft toy monkey and namesake, Fielies, as a Christmas gift around my third birthday (yes, I actually remember getting the present and opening it) and the other where my sister, twelve years older than me, ignored my mother’s instructions and gave me Coke-Cola in a baby bottle, even though I wasn’t supposed to having Coke or be drinking bottle anymore.

Of the second farm I have many happy memories, much of them involving my brother, father and grandfather.

The second phase was living in the neighbouring town. Here my memories contain mostly our house, my brother who was nine years older than me and in high school in the next town during the week – and my grandfather’s shop. (See my blog entry for more on this at https://fieliesdekock.com/2013/04/02/my-grandfathers-shop/).

My grandfather sold stationary, fireworks and also gifts and gift cards in his shop. My grandfather and grandmother taught me to read and write numbers and I helped them put handwritten prices on the products in the shop. This made me feel very smart. But what didn’t make me feel smart was that although I could write numbers, I couldn’t read letters. The gift card display cupboard filled with Helen Steiner Rice cards made me realised that. The cards were different than the other cards in the sense that they didn’t only have words inside the cards, but also on the outsides.

I was fascinated by these little symbols that, when put together with other sets of letter combinations, formed words. I was even more amazed by the fact that so many different words could be formed by using those letters. And with that, if you know how, one could make sentences using all kinds of different words. And these sentences became the keys to creating other worlds. Worlds full of stories.

To overcome my frustration I sometimes asked my grandmother or grandfather to read me some of the cards instead of a storybook. I didn’t understand much, because the words confronted emotions and life experience I could yet identify with. But what I did get, was the wonderful rhythm of the rhyme that made those words sound as beautiful as a symphony in my ears. I could just listen and listen. As soon as I learned to read in school, I used Helen’s cards to practice my reading.

Then one day a new order from the big city arrived which got mixed up somewhere and the shop got someone else’s order and to my shock and wonder I found out that Helen was speaking English too! I could now practice my English reading too. It paid its dividends, because my English spelling became very good and my vocabulary grew beyond my second language reading book’s arsenal. I won’t comment on my speaking ability though because in our town no one spoke English. There were Afrikaans, Tswana, Portuguese and Lebanese people living there, but somehow no one spoke English!

Only many years later I learned to my surprise that Helen Steiner Rice (I thought the name was a bit foreign) wasn’t a nice Afrikaans speaking boere antie (boer aunty), but actually a very nice American woman who started writing greeting cards when she took over a greeting card company and she realised the need for cards with feel good messages.

Although Helen was dubbed ‘Ambassador of Sunshine’ at the Gibson Art Company in Cincinnati, she didn’t only know the sunny side of life. Her father died when she was young and instead of pursuing her dreams, she helped her family survive. She married a young business man who lost everything in the 1929 New York stock market crash and was left widowed at age 32 after he took his own life due to depression related illness. But she became a successful business woman and ran the greeting card company for forty years, while keep writing her beautiful poems and unknowingly taught a little Afrikaans girl how to read, first in Afrikaans and then in English. And then to write. First in Afrikaans and then in English.

Thank you, Mrs. Helen Steiner Rice, for unlocking the world of words for me.

HSR 10 Commandments

PS: You can read her story on a website dedicated to her at http://www.helensteinerrice.com/hsrinfo.html.

PPS: I found out today that either Google doesn’t know everything or that I don’t know how to get the information I need out of Google. I tried to find out who was responsible for the translation of Helen’s poems into Afrikaans, but I couldn’t. I also tried to find out into how many languages her work is translated into. I’m still searching. If you have more information on this, please comment.

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© 2016  – I, Fielies (Riëtte) De Kock tries hard to be a Proverbs 31-woman – excellentest wife, finest mom, greatest lover and successful ‘wordpreneur’ all at the same time. I share my current living space in Cairo, Egypt with my husband, young-adult son, the building’s ginger cat – and the space in my head with way too many ideas and multitudes of story characters to function as a normal human being.

Teach Your Child to Read

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I’ve travelled the world twice over,

Met the famous; saints and sinners,

Poets and artists, kings and queens,

Old stars and hopeful beginners,

I’ve been where no-one’s been before,

Learned secrets from writers and cooks

All with one library ticket

To the wonderful world of books.

Janice James

Writing is one of the most important things we learn to do. With writing goes reading. If we can’t read, we won’t be able to write – not even signing our own names. We won’t be able to read labels on food packages or give our children the right dosages of medicine when they are sick. We won’t be able to read cautions to prevent ourselves and our families from danger. We won’t be able to learn or have the privilege to read all the wonderful stories that other people write – or write our own. This is the reality of many, many people in South Africa and the world today. We lived abroad in an Arab country for a while and not knowing their alphabet and their language for most of our stay, our family were experiencing ‘illiteracy’ first-hand and it wasn’t easy.

According to www.100people.org 14 out of every 100 people in the world can’t read which means more than 150 000 out of every million people on earth! That’s way too much. Closer to home, it is estimated that 50% of the matriculants failing their Grade 12 exams, could have passed if they were better readers. That is a shocking statistic. Given these facts, it is obviously important to learn to read and to read well.

Here are a few pointers to help you as a parent to get your child reading.

  • Set the example for your children. Be a reader yourself and tell them about the awesome and interesting things you have read about. That will result in curiosity and encourage your child to read too.
  • Read for him from the time he is a baby. Use your voice to speak like the different characters, show him the pictures – act out the scenes if possible. He will probably laugh at you and he will start associating reading with fun.
  • Since you know your child best, read stories to him and let him read stories that he is interested in. Don’t read a boy a ‘boring’ love story if he would prefer an adventure.
  • Start reading a well-known story and let your child pitch in to create an alternative ending. It will be great fun and develop his creativity.
  • If you are believers, start reading the Bible aloud together after dinner – even if it once a week. They might find it difficult at first, because of the older language and the not-up-to-date sentence construction, but the spelling is correct and the words are everlasting – literally. Start by letting them read the Genesis stories first and also books like Ruth and Esther, before moving onto the ‘heavier’ stuff. (And be ready to answer a lot of questions.) Reading aloud in the safe family environment will build their courage for public reading and speaking.
  • When your young child outgrows children’s books, start with tween (10-12 years old) literature. Those series we read as children are popular again at this stage – Saartjie, Trompie, The Hardy Boys, The Secret Seven etc. (Trompie and Saartjie had been re-written into more modern Afrikaans, so that it is more digestible for our modern children – although my son still found it hard to identify with the Trompie setting and characters.)
  • Cartoons and comics are wonderful reading tools. They are normally colourful and funny, short and – boys especially – love them. They help to get a child from not reading at all to getting them interested in reading. It also written concisely – which will help the child with his own writing.
  • Help your child read their first longer book by taking turns to read aloud. You can start half a chapter and he can read the second half. Start out by reading only one chapter in the evening in bed. That way it is easier to read a longer book and they won’t feel overwhelmed by the many pages awaiting them. It is wonderful to reach the end of a month or two months or even three and see that satisfied little face when he realised that he read a whole book!
  • If your older child still doesn’t want to read books, buy magazines or subscribe to a specific magazine that he or she would be interested in. Magazines as a rule are very well edited; therefore your child will learn correct spelling and sentence construction without even realising it. The more they read, the easier they will remember the words and the better there spelling and the sentence construction will become – without you even nagging or trying too hard! There are various teen magazines available these days – just scan the content before you give it to your child. So, take your child to the nearest news agency and choose some magazines for them to read. Alternatively subscribe to an digital version.
  • Remember that boys love non-fiction, so encourage them to read books and magazine articles with facts if they don’t like long books of fiction.
  • Internet surfing would also help them to at least read something. Just keep in mind that factual content can be incorrect on websites and that there are lots of spelling and language mistakes on the web. But, if it gets your child reading, why not? And he will even learn something. Let them research NASA and National Geographic pages or let them look up information on careers and hobbies. CAUTION: Make sure your child surfs safely and that his screen time is supervised!
  • Join the library and regularly take out books for the whole family. It is a cheap and good way to develop a reading routine within the whole household. Make an outing of the trip to the ‘bib’ and give your children time to sit there and page through the books and magazines before taking out their books for the next two weeks. Libraries also have great holiday programs and encourage reading through various other initiatives. Encourage book talks around the dinner table.

Remember, our children are different from us. They live in a different world than we grew up in. There is an overwhelming amount of entertainment competing for their attention. They live partially virtual lives. Each child differs from the next and they are all unique individuals. They learn differently from us and they each learn at their own pace. Appreciate, respect and embrace those differences. And have patience. In time, they will get there.

Happy reading!

© 2010 Fielies De Kock (Edited 2019)

Awesomest wife. Finest mom. Hopefullest writer. Foreverest dreamer. Living in a coastal village in the Overberg, South Africa, with a husband and two dogs in a small heritage house and a job-seeking son in the garden cottage. Anyone out there interested in paying a new graduate a salary?