Books for the Children of Southern African

- some personal notes jotted down and some questions answered -

Compiled by Marjorie van Heerden


Marjorie was born in South Africa. From an early age she loved drawing. Her children’s books, as writer and/or illustrator, have been published in the USA, England, Germany, Greece and across the continent of Africa, in English, Afrikaans, French, German, Greek and many African Languages. Her greatest joy is in writing and illustrating a picture book that is good enough to be kept under the child's pillow at night, but her greatest contribution to date has probably been the reading series she designed, created and published for the millions of historically disadvantaged beginner readers in South Africa.

[www.grafikon.co.za ; www.marjorie-van-heerden.blogspot.com ]

When I was approached by the organisers of the 2007 Cape Town Book Fair to write down some thoughts about my experience as a South African children’s book writer and illustrator I decided to use the opportunity also to get some clearer insights for myself. So, after jotting down some personal notes, I put a number of pertinent questions to a couple of my friends who work in the industry and I’ve copied their replies below. I certainly found their answers stimulating and I hope it will provide some insight to other readers of this piece.

First, however, on a personal note as a South African who has written and illustrated children’s books (mostly picture books) for the past three decades, I want to mention that it has been a long, rough road but I would not have wanted to walk any other road. I love what I do and I do it because children’s books are my passion and I love creating books specifically for South Africa’s children. If someone asked me what I see as the main point of difference about the people in South Africa, my answer will be that I find they communicate easier with their heart than with their head – it makes for many problems but it also creates a world that I find exciting and alive. If I compare the artwork of South African illustrators to those from other countries I find, very subjectively, that the colours are more vibrant and the subject matter often very emotional, full of movement and drama, as are the stories. Surely this is not unique to my country’s writers and illustrators, but this is where I experience it.

The sad thing is that because of our relatively small trade book publishing industry with small print runs and small lists many of our promising writers and illustrators do not get a chance even to have their work published and as a result they do not get the opportunity to develop their craft. It is very challenging to make a career out of children’s books in our country and there are very few children’s book writers and/or illustrators who can do that exclusively without some other form of income or support. Typically it is the old-fashioned situation of a woman with a passion for children’s literature and a partner who provides for the food and shelter. But, the trade books that do get published here are often of a superb standard and, partly because we sit here on the southernmost tip of Africa these books most often never reach the international markets.

On the other hand, we have a very active publishing industry for educational books, particularly since the changes brought about with democracy and the official end of apartheid in 1994. Many writers and illustrators make their bread-and-butter money by working in that industry. But therein lies a danger - the “new” South Africa has to focus so strongly on education and basic literacy that writers and illustrators can very easily become submerged in producing “strictly educational” material, sometimes virtually like on an assembly line. With a relatively small local pool of professional writers and illustrators of children's books, the same people very often work in both fields of educational publications and trade books, even though relatively few of the latter are published these days. With the aim of having educational publications prescribed at schools and working within the strictly regulated parameters of curricula, and very often against virtually impossible deadlines, there is the distinct danger that a writer/illustrator may lose the magic of purely creating work to be read for pleasure. At the same time one should also keep in mind that talented writers and illustrators in our part of the world do not create educational material only for the money (the money is really not that spectacular...), but we honestly do feel that we should, in our way, try to contribute to what our president poetically calls “the African Renaissance” – a renaissance of which education and basic literacy are fundamental keystones.

As I try to formulate this dilemma succinctly, I realise that these statements can open up a debate which could last for many hours and which may even then not result in a complete bridge of understanding between colleagues working in the first and in the third worlds. Nevertheless, let me briefly share a personal experience with you: Some years ago I found myself illustrating one schoolbook after the other. For month after month I worked wearing the straightjacket of strict educational guidelines and curricula. I was constantly being “guided” by educationists and administrators - even for art briefs (!). The results were often surprisingly good and the books were always accepted and prescribed at schools. But, somewhere inside of me, the child who needed fantasy and fairies and monsters and dragons was being starved. And then I had a lucky break. I won a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation Writers’ workshop [www.highlightsfoundation.org/] at Chautauqua in the USA. Some kind fairy with a magic wand had decided that Ed Young should be my mentor for a week. [http://www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/ and http://www.nccil.org/young.html] I had long been an admirer of his work and I could not believe my luck. My sessions with him ended up being mostly discussions about the philosophy of writing and illustrating for young children, rather than actually evaluating my work. Under his guidance I had a complete change of mind as to how I looked at the work I do, whether within the strict parameters of school readers or with the freedom of creativity in my own picture books. It put all the joy back into the career I had chosen for myself, or maybe the career that chose me. This may seem like a small incident, but I brought away a certain insight and perspective I would like to share with my colleagues and, if possible, I would also like to create similar mind changing opportunities for those of them who could benefit from it.

I was reminded that one should always try and keep the magic alive. While striving to become a successful writer/illustrator for children one needs those exact qualities that many adults tend to lose in the pursuit of logic, common sense, experience and all those grownup things. One should try to stay in touch with your inner child and allow her to come to the surface again. Jumpstart your memories and remember what it was like to be a child. Jumpstart your senses and become aware of the physical world around you. And allow your imagination freedom. Look at things as if you are seeing them for the first time – the way children are fortunate enough to be able to do.

Unfortunately those wonderful qualities of more youthful days are not enough in this real world – you also need to have guts, perseverance and even a bit of (childish?) stubbornness. You must be able to keep going when faced with an idea, an inspiration that must grow into a text or an image that will have to be revised and reworked again and again until it is exactly right. Once this is achieved you must tackle those 32 pages that have to be illustrated with meticulous care and delivered in time for the publisher’s deadline. And all that, at least here at the foot of Africa, while seldom receiving the financial compensation that reflects the effort of a master craftsman at work for all those long hours, days and months. And then one is reminded that it is actually quite enough that somebody’s grandchild is going to insist, when they go to bed at night, that that little book should sleep safely right there under the pillow where he or she can touch it for a last time just before slipping into sleep.

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Now for the promised Q&A session with my two colleagues and friends. First some questions answered by the prominent South African publisher, Miemie du Plessis:

Miemie du Plessis obtained degrees in Social Work and Library & Information Science, and also has an MA in children’s literature. She is currently the children’s book publisher at LAPA Publishers in Pretoria, South Africa where she is responsible for the publication and marketing of 50 children’s books per year. Miemie truly believes that books can make a difference in the lives of children and is therefore committed to the establishment of a reading culture amongst the children of her country. [www.lapa.co.za ]

Q: To start with, can you give us a feeling for the size of the local industry?

South Africa’s book publishing industry is one of the largest in Africa. More than 120 general and educational publishers are affiliated to PASA (Publishing Association of South Africa). In 2004 it was estimated that the publishing industry employed some 3,000 people on a full-time basis and that approximately 9,000 South African authors earned more or less R150 million in royalties annually.

Q: Quite a large proportion of that is probably educational books?

As is the case in most African countries, educational publishers largely dominate the South African publishing industry. The educational book market has been, and still is, the only really viable market for South African publishers. The Education Departments of the nine provinces represent the primary market for these publishers and their focus on uplifting educational standards is creating a new demand for good quality textbooks. This has resulted in the local publishing industry becoming increasingly competitive as new players are entering the market in an attempt to capitalise on these growth opportunities. The trend is toward supporting local authors and illustrators and developing uniquely South African products, rather than importing or translating books from other countries.

Q: Apart from educational publications, what about book publishing in general?

Unlike the educational market, the general publishing market has not shown significant growth during the past few years with many declaring that “the book industry is dying”. The number of titles being published per annum shows a decline – for example a 71% decrease in the publication of Afrikaans books for children and teenagers between 1990 and 2002. Many small and independent publishers have also closed down or were taken over by multinationals or big local companies. This can mainly be attributed to the fact that under the previous government, publishers were spoilt rotten – entire print runs were bought by government for schools and libraries and there was little need to market or be inventive in any way. This was especially true for children’s books.

Q: Saying “the SA book industry is dying” paints a pretty grim picture, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does, but at the same time it seems as if something is rising from the ashes. Independent publishers such as Jacana, New Africa Books and STE are taking risks with unusual voices and genres and are publishing some wonderful books, especially memoirs and fiction. Established publishers are also beginning to experiment/trying new things. Struik for example has established a new imprint, Oshun Books, who is publishing books for and by women. Anneri van der Merwe (Umuzi Books) says that this new wave in publishing relates directly to the political changes in the country – there is an air of freedom, freedom of speech, political freedom and not feeling pressured to be politically active/involved in writing. We can write about “normal” things again now that our lives have (partly) normalised and at last readers can relate to what is being written. This explosion or new wave has not yet reached the shores of books for children and teenagers to such a large degree, but things are definitely looking up.

Q: The new South Africa is a pretty multicultural and multilingual place where, since our miraculous democratisation in 1994, suddenly we have a population where everybody is equal and their human rights are protected by our new constitution. What was the impact of the new “Rainbow Nation” on the publishing industry?

The vast political and social changes that occurred in South Africa after 1994, are for the most part not reflected in the publishing industry. Under the new government the number of official languages increased from two to eleven, but Afrikaans and English still dominate the publishing scene, with more than 90% of local books being published in these two languages. The publishing sector has been very reluctant to publish reading materials in African languages despite the fact that there is growing international support for use of the mother tongue to teach literacy. Some of the reasons cited for not producing reading material in other languages than English and Afrikaans include dismal sales (most South Africans prefer to read in English; severe budget cuts in library budgets and prescribed-books for schools) and the large costs involved in producing materials in 11 languages. There are some wonderful awards for writing in African languages such as the Sanlam prize for youth literature and the M-Net book prize but although this results in publishable manuscripts it does not translate into sales.


Q: If you say it does not translate into sales, do you mean our people do not buy books?


Very few South Africans are book-buyers. It is estimated that only 5 percent of the population regularly buy books. Some of the reasons for this trend could be the high levels of illiteracy and aliteracy (people who can read but choose not to – this includes 20% of people in senior management positions). Three million South Africans can not read at all and another five to eight million are functionally illiterate – thus unable to function adequately due to under-developed reading and writing skills. A recent study indicated that the average literacy competency of grade 3 pupils is 54%. The situation seems to worsen because a study amongst grade 6’s found that only 35% of them could read and write adequately and a study amongst first year university students found that only 22% of them had literacy skills equivalent to grade 12 (the final school year) level. As many as 30% had a literacy level of grade 7 and below (primary school level in other words).


Q: Suddenly I’m very happy to be a writer and illustrator of children’s picture books. But, jokes aside, are you saying that our people are not buying books because so many of them cannot read?


That is obviously a primary reason, but other reasons for the lack of a book-buying public are economic constraints (books are just too expensive for most South Africans) and a lack of a reading culture. The absence of a widespread culture of reading acts as an effective barrier to development, reconstruction and international competitiveness. Reading is seen by most South Africans as synonymous with studying and is perceived as an academic exercise or obligation. There are low levels of awareness of the value of reading in personal and career development. Another reason for the lack of a culture of reading, is that many children often have little or no experience in parent-child reading before starting school. This is due to the fact that many parents are illiterate and that there is a shortage of reading material written in indigenous languages that could be used by the parents who can read. Thus reading for pleasure is less likely to be a habitual practice in African families. This is the case despite efforts from government side to support a stronger culture of reading - for example, through literacy campaigns such as Masifunde Sonke (a Zulu phrase that means “let us all read”). This campaign was launched in 2000 to develop a culture of reading in the country, but very little was achieved mostly because of a lack of support from politicians and business.

Q: So the picture concerning the reading habits of the general population is pretty dark. But what about those South Africans who are in the habit of reading for pleasure and self-improvement? Do we produce enough new books for their consumption?


Although South Africa publishes a sizeable number of titles a vast amount are still imported. I have read and agree that publishing is a strategic industry in the development of the African continent because without books, active literacy, education and development is near impossible. To achieve this, it is however not advisable to rely on imported books. The key concepts here are autonomy and indigenization. Although there are some suggestions that a “new wave” is forthcoming in South African publishing there are not nearly enough new and young voices being heard. Publishers struggle to find local manuscripts to publish in other languages than English and there seem to be a “voiceless generation” with very few writers under the age of 35 coming forward. In the field of books for children and young adults this problem is specifically apparent with the same ten or so authors being published again and again. There is also a lack of originality and local content in books for children and teenagers, with the same themes being explored over and over again with little variety and inventiveness. Particularly worrying is that there are almost no black authors writing for children and teenagers. The few who have been published have, with the exception of one or two authors, also not published second books.


Q: Earlier you mentioned economic constraints, that books are just too expensive for most South Africans to afford. Can you expand on that?


South Africa has a very high unemployment rate. This means that books are unaffordable to the biggest part of the South African community. Homes generally have few books, classrooms are often bare and schools with libraries are a rarity. The gap between those who can afford books and those who don’t is broadening day by day as publishers have to adjust their book prices according to the forever escalating manufacturing costs. The fact that VAT is added to the cost does not help either. South African publishers are publishing more and more books in the Far East in order to try to keep costs down. However, the fact remains that the books published in South Africa are beyond the reach of most ordinary South Africans and that this is one of the most significant reasons for the lack of a reading culture in the country. The position of the Rand against the Pound, the Euro and the American Dollar also places constraints on co-editions with international publishers or leads to local publishers doing fewer co-editions than they would have liked.


Q: If those people who would like to read cannot afford buying books, then what about libraries? Why do they not use the library?


Accessibility, or rather the lack thereof. Community libraries are few and far between and fewer than 50% of schools have libraries. There is also a low level of awareness amongst decision-makers about the value of libraries as they are often non-readers themselves. This leads to cuts in library budgets and several libraries being closed down. Users are also unaware of the value of reading for personal and professional development and therefore libraries are mostly used for study purposes – i.e. as a place to study/do assignments and the books remain standing on the shelves, not being utilised for reading for pleasure.


So, there are some comments from Miemie du Plessis about the local, South African position today. And Miemie knows what she is talking about, because she works in the very heart of the industry and she deals with these very issues every day.

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I then turned to another colleague and dear friend, Andree-Jeanne T├Âtemeyer, to comment on the situation regarding children’s books in our neighbouring country Namibia, which is not only geographically, but also culturally very close to South Africa.

Andree-Jeanne T├Âtemeyer is a retired professor who lectured in children’s literature at four universities. She is co-founder and chairperson of the Namibian Children’s Book Forum. She is the collector and also co-author of “Under the story tree”, the others being Dorian Haarhoff and Susan Alexander. She also writes children’s plays, apart from academic articles on children’s literature and library and information science.

Q: Because of South Africa’s close geographical proximity to Namibia there are many similarities in the histories of our two countries. Would you like to say something about that?

Namibia was ruled as an integral part of South Africa for close to 70 years. Apartheid was also practiced in Namibia for most of the time but was abolished earlier than in South Africa because of international pressure. Namibia also became independent before South Africa, as Africa’s last colony, namely in 1990.

Q: I imagine that the children’s book situation in Namibia is quite similar in many ways to that in South Africa?

Yes, the children’s book scene in Namibia does show many similarities with that of South Africa, but also some important differences, including the size of the industry, the financial parameters, the position of professional writers and illustrators and the strong focus on trying to develop a reading culture among Namibian children.

Q: I know the one difference is that Namibia has a much smaller population than South Africa. But what is the literacy rate and the language situation in Namibia?

The demography of the two countries is indeed very different. The total Namibian population is 2 million compared to 45 million in South Africa. The majority of the adult population is either illiterate or semi-literate. The semi-literate can mostly only read their mother tongues and not English. The children are mainly educated in English but they struggle to master the language. There are 12 Namibian languages. Of these, two are European, namely English and German. In South Africa there are 11 languages.

Q: Turning to the children’s book publishing industry in Namibia, a couple of key questions: Who are the publishers and what do they publish for children? Who buys their books? What is the balance between trade and educational books?

Some years ago there were a number of very small publishing houses. They could not make it alone and amalgamated with Gamsberg Macmillan who now publishes most of the children’s books in Namibia. They publish mainly prescribed school books and only occasionally trade books for children. The government is the only buyer of the school books and the main buyer of the trade books. The latter books are bought by the library services for the school and community libraries. Parents seldom buy books for leisure reading for their children. German trade books sell better than English books. This is quite amazing since less than 2% of the Namibian population is German-speaking. The buyers are the German tourists.

Q: But, is it then possible for the publishing of children’s books to be financially viable?

Definitely not as far as trade books for children are concerned. A publisher can only publish such books with the help of sponsorships. Publishing in the local languages is the biggest problem. With a small population and so many languages, only a very small print run can be produced. Even 500 copies take a long time to sell. This makes it a very expensive undertaking.

Q: But Namibia is publishing, nevertheless. Who are the writers and illustrators and what is their work situation?

There is a lack of local African writers for children. Creative writing one day workshops or the institution of literary prizes do not bring the desired results. The few children’s book writers that there are, can never make a living from it. The publishers Gamsberg Macmillan have two full-time illustrators in their service. Some illustration work is done by free-lance illustrators who are contracted in by the publishers as the need arises. There is very little money in this for them.

Q: Can you tell us more about what is being done to develop a reading culture among the children of Namibia?

The Namibian Children’s Book Forum (NCBF) that was founded in 1988, has as its two aims: 1) To develop a love of books among Namibian children, and 2) To contribute to the production of Namibian children’s books in all Namibian languages. One of its projects was the organisation of the annual Readathon, a week long book festival in September. The NCBF handed Readathon over to government in 2002 and is now mainly focusing on publishing. Over the years the NCBF produced and distributed Readathon story pamphlets in 11 languages to schools. These stories are now appearing in book form. A book of sixteen Readathon stories with full colour illustrations by Sarie Maritz and comprising 93 pages, “Under the story tree” appeared last year. This year with the financial assistance of donors, it has been published in Oshindonga, Oshikwanyama, Khoekhoegowab and Rukwangali. For every language we organised a wonderful launch. The Rukwangali version we launched in Rundu and the Kavango kids performed beautifully with dancing in traditional dress and drums. They also enacted one of the stories in Rukwangali as a play. The Otjiherero, Silozi, German and Afrikaans versions are in the pipeline and will appear this year as well. Another children’s book of ten stories, “The magic tree and other tales from the San” will also appear this year simultaneously in English and Ju’ I hoansi (pronounced “Djungkwansi”). This is the main San language but there are six, mainly oral languages! The book is the result of six Saturday work sessions by the Namibian Children’s Book Forum that Susan Alexander and I conducted together with eight San students. The editing was a major job but the final English version has been ready for three years now. The donors of the project, however, insisted that the two languages be launched together and the San version took ages! But now it is done and scheduled to be published this year.

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So, there you have it, some notes from a working, slogging professional children’s book writer and illustrator in South Africa and some well-informed bits of information from two specialists in the field locally. I look at the glass of juice standing next to my workbench and I wonder whether it is half full or half empty. And then I am reminded of the two young shoe salesmen who were sent from Europe to the jungles of central Africa in the 19th century to go and assess whether there was a market for the company’s products. The one came back and reported, “Forget about it! Nobody in that place wears shoes!” The other came back with a broad smile and reported with shining eyes, “Now THERE is a market you can only dream of. Nobody in that place has shoes!” It is wonderful to be an African and to be faced with all these challenges. All I need to do now is to pick up my crayons and to start drawing...

Marjorie van Heerden
Gordon’s Bay
May 2007