Bringing history to life for younger readers: Q & A with Taryn Hayes

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In her debut youth novel, Seekers of the Lost Boy, Taryn Hayes offers a thoughtful look at the legacy of apartheid, the impact of human connection, and the power of redemption. Set in present-day Cape Town, the story begins as 12-year-old Simon Ward discovers a mysterious message in a bottle. He and his homeschooling family embark on a quest to find the author of the message, and in doing so, uncover truths about South Africa's apartheid past and their own history that change their lives forever. Hayes tackles big themes – education, spirituality, family secrets, race relations, and the recounting of history – but in a way that allows readers to engage with the issues as they follow the clues along with Simon and the Wards. A compelling tale for all ages, Seekers of the Lost Boychallenges us to consider our response to South Africa's history and our role in its future. 

First of all, let me say that I absolutely loved your book! Although it was written for children, I couldn't put it down. What prompted you to write it?

I have always dreamt of writing stories, but I imagined it would be in a different season of life when the kids had grown up and didn’t need me as much. But then I started homeschooling my kids. The more we came across excellent living books that taught children incredible truths through the power of story, the more I wanted to give my own kids living books that were even more relevant to them than those we had already discovered. I dreamt of homeschooled characters in South Africa experiencing a landscape my kids were familiar with and grappling with issues they, too, faced. Pretty soon the story that took hold of my imagination began spilling out on to my keyboard.

Education is a hot issue today, as parents and politicians try to sort out what's best for children, and homeschooling is part of that debate. What is your hope for education in South Africa? 

Seekers of the Lost Boy
doesn’t touch on the debate at all. Both mainstream schools and the homeschooling approach are described rather than prescribed. But as a former high school teacher of history and English, and now as a homeschooling mother predominantly using a literature-based approach to learning, I see the value in using literature to educate. My hope is that education in South Africa will make large strides towards embracing, with reason and measure, the education evolution that is currently underway worldwide.

Your story features St James Church, Kenilworth. This is the same church of the St James church massacre of 1993. What is its significance in your story?

Yes, it is. While most people in South Africa remember St James as the church of the massacre, where APLA gunmen opened fire and threw grenades, killing 11 and injuring 58, many others remember the church and its then leader, Bishop Frank Retief, for the revival of the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s. At the time, it was a small chapel, but through God’s grace, St James Church saw incredible heart changes in ordinary people. Then, St James stood out as a multiracial, multisocial/-economic, inclusive church, and still does today. In Seekers of the Lost Boy, St James very much represents the sort of forgiveness and reconciliation that acts as key themes in the story.

Title: Seekers of the Lost Boy
Author: Taryn Hayes
Publisher: Naledi
ISBN: 9781920654047
Price: R98

Buy Seekers of the Lost Boy on

In today's instantaneous media culture where entertainment is a click away, youth fiction runs the risk of emphasising spark over substance. Your novel manages to be both an exciting adventure and an exploration of serious issues. How did you achieve that balance?
To be honest, I gave very little thought to balance, processes, action sequences and more. As this is my first novel, I wrote what I knew and loved. Aside from chapter endings, pace and suspense weren’t deliberate. There were times when I wondered if my choices would suit today’s audience, but then I would remember the delight my own children experience reading books of previous generations, so I persevered with what struck a chord in my own heart. In retrospect, I am infinitely aware of God’s hand in it all.

In an exploration of significant themes it's possible for the issues to overtake the plot, turning the work into a treatise rather than a story. How did you handle expressing your views without disrupting the narrative?

I think new authors, like myself, are so green that they can luck out without even knowing it! Only after I wrote Seekers of the Lost Boy was I made aware that most seasoned writers frown upon the agenda-driven story. Thankfully, despite the agenda, it seems that Seekers still carries itself as a compelling story. Why? Perhaps because the characters’ lives reflect some of the hard questions we face every day? Perhaps because the history I chose to explore is recognisable in the soul of all humankind? I cannot be sure. What I do know from feedback I have received from readers of all ages and sexes is that even within the pure story, nuggets of truth are finding their way into the hearts of the readers.

What do you hope young readers will take away from their experience of reading this book?

When I’ve read a moving story, often it feels as if my heart continues to smile long after the smile on my lips has faded. If Seekers can leave the imprint of a heart smile, I will be glad. Beyond that, my hope is that readers’ minds and hearts will better understand some of the big questions of life, particularly in relation to the history of this beautiful, yet troubled, land, South Africa.

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