Books for the Children of Southern African
Marjorie was born in
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
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
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”
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
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.
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: 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,
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
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.
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?
Q: Earlier you mentioned economic constraints, that books are just too expensive for most South Africans to afford. Can you expand on that?
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.
I then turned to another colleague and dear friend, Andree-Jeanne Tötemeyer, to comment on the situation regarding children’s books in our neighbouring country
Q: Because of
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
Yes, the children’s book scene in
Q: I know the one difference is that
The demography of the two countries is indeed very different. The total Namibian population is 2 million compared to 45 million in
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
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.
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
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.
So, there you have it, some notes from a working, slogging professional children’s book writer and illustrator in