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.

[ ; ]

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 [] at Chautauqua in the USA. Some kind fairy with a magic wand had decided that Ed Young should be my mentor for a week. [ and] 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.


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. [ ]

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.


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 Namibia, which is not only geographically, but also culturally very close to South Africa.

Andree-Jeanne Tötemeyer 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.


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

My Pictures Tell Stories

by Marjorie van Heerden

February 2007

I started to draw when I was very young. I drew everything I saw and I even drew things I thought about, like dragons and fairies and monsters. To me drawing was like talking, like telling a story. Often I found it easier to draw something than to explain it in words. Today it is still the same for me.

When I was little my favourite book was Ferdinand the Bull, a story about a little bull who loved smelling the flowers. He did not like to fight like all the other young bulls. I was four years old when my mother first read Ferdinand to me. I remember being fascinated with how the words made pictures in my mind as I listened to them. And I loved the way the pictures in the book were drawn. Some pictures showed far away scenes with big empty white areas on the rest of the page. Other pictures showed figures in close-up, completely filling the page. I wanted to draw pictures like that – pictures that tell a story. So I did. I remember drawing a picture of a lot of sheep in a field with one sheep looking up, one looking right and another looking left. Every sheep in my picture looked towards a different place. My picture was telling a story.

Today I am an illustrator and a writer of children’s books. Sometimes I write the story and draw the pictures. Sometimes I illustrate a story written by somebody else. Then I first read the story over and over again. I let the words form pictures in my mind’s eye. I let the characters in the story become alive in my mind – I actually see them. I do this until the whole story becomes like a film playing inside my head - picture after picture after picture. Then it is time to start drawing.

The words and the pictures are like best friends. They cannot be without each other. Both must be there to tell the story really well. They work together like close partners. A little bull who loved smelling the flowers taught me that!

Over the years I drew many, many pictures. just in the last five years I’ve had to draw lots of people and animals and wizards and dragons and fairies and goblins and gargoyles and dinosaurs that talk and even a magical moonchild. I’ve also had to draw monsters, lots and lots of monsters. I even drew a plant called a delicious monster! And I placed them in magical forests, or in huge castles covered in silver moonlight, or on the shores of wild seas or under the waves. And I painted whole worlds on my paper in the colours I love.

Anything is possible if you have a crayon in your hand and a blank page in front of you.

I really, really love what I do... I draw pictures that tell stories!

Some Notes from a Picture Book Illustrator in Africa

By Marjorie van Heerden

December 2005

As I sit here in my studio looking out over the Atlantic Ocean at the Southern tip of Africa I wonder what about me and my world might interest readers of OUAT, most of whom virtually live on another planet to myself. I am exhausted but I am feeling good. Art materials are strewn all around me, little scraps of paper with color tests on them and all the other paraphernalia that make up my life as an illustrator. This morning I couriered off 56 color illustrations and my mind is still full of images and thoughts of this incredible continent which is my home. The book I finished illustrating this morning is a 112-page book on African Folktales. AFRICAN folktales...

Although I am an eleventh generation South African, the book was not easy. It took a vast amount of research. For instance, the facial features and skin color of the people of each country from which a story came, the combination of traditional jewelry with modern western clothing, regional peculiarities, every detail had to be just right for a book like this one. A book deserving of the kids of Africa. We have so much work to do here. When I lived in the USA it was so easy to talk about concepts like stimulate, entertain, educate... That was a different planet.

I love picture books. And I love books that kids love, particularly the little ones. I remember when I was about four years old my mother gave me a book called Ferdinand the Bull. Half a century later I realize what a profound impact that little book had on me – in my young mind it triggered a fascination with the interaction between words and pictures. I remember pouring over that book and loving lines like “His mother saw that he was not lonely, and because she was an understand­ing mother; even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.” I remember some pictures showed far away scenes with big empty white areas on the rest of the page and other pictures showed close-up figures completely filling the page. I wanted to draw pictures like that. Later, when it became clear that my dyslexia made words harder than pictures, I started focusing more and more on expressing myself though drawing, even as a child. And it all started with a little bull who loved smelling the flowers. Years later I learnt that Ferdinand the Bull (1937), was one of the earliest anti-war picture books ever published, if not the very first.

I grew up in the privileged, sheltered world of white kids in apartheid South Africa. It was only when I went to university and met my future husband who had just spent a year as a conscript in the military (he was 18), that we started learning about the real horrors of the Africa we lived in. It was the sixties and of course we were also flower children, but we did not protest against some war in Southeast Asia, we protested against an unbelievably scary thing in our own land, a thing called apartheid... The sixties became the seventies and my head was buzzing with thoughts anti war, anti apartheid, anti sexism… I was a painter and sculptor and I tried to express my feelings though my work.

In 1977 our daughter was born and in 1980 our son. They brought my focus back to children’s literature. I started illustrating and then writing picture books. Soon I was collecting and studying literally thousands of picture books. I became fascinated with what a powerful genre it was. I studied how young minds developed and how high quality picture books were much more than entertainment. How a single picture book can help shape a child’s mind, even contribute to that child becoming a compassionate, caring adult. And I dreamed of creating that one really beautiful picture book.

But the reality is that to be a children’s writer/illustrator in Africa you can never forget how desperate the needs of Africa’s children are. So I had to modify my dream. I now dreamed of creating picture books that might help our kids break out of their vicious cycle of poor education and poverty, give them self-esteem and stimulate their creativity and initiative. I really wanted to create books like Ferdinand for them.

My early books, like A Monster in the Garden (1987), had very subtle anti-racism messages imbedded in the illustrations, and some local university lecturers use them as examples of early South African anti-racism picture books.

Although these books were bought by libraries, I realized that most of our children seldom even saw a book before they got to school. So I became involved in projects work-shopping books specifically for children in underprivileged areas. These books were good (our Little Library collection got the 1996 IBBY Asahi Award) but in the end there was not enough money to reach as many children as we hoped.

Then came a lucky break. I was commissioned to make educational posters to be distributed to preschools in rural farming areas. Most of these schools had no classrooms. Lessons were given under shady thorn trees. I thought the posters might be handy, but I sold the project manager another idea. I knew most of these kids had hardly ever seen a picture book and certainly none of them owned one. So I wrote and illustrated twenty-one stories and laid each out on the two sides of an A3 page, so that the kid could fold it, staple it, cut off the top and end up with her very own eight-page picture book to keep, color and read aloud to grandma back home. The local doctor or police chief was persuaded to make available their photo­copier to Xerox a free copy for each kid in the class. These twenty-one titles became the first picture books owned by thousands of youngsters in our land.

But that tale does not end there. Later I was commissioned to develop these stories into a reading series. I worked for five years writing and illustrating the Bright Books series for the first three school years. It was approved by the Educational Board and became prescribed reading in many schools.

It is such a privilege to make books for the children of this land. Every day has a new challenge. We have eleven official languages in South Africa. One of my books has been translated into ten. I want to see it in the eleventh language too!

But my dream is still to create that one truly beautiful picture book. The book that will make a little boy under a shady thorn tree somewhere on the African veld, or a little girl next to a glimmering swimming pool in Beverley Hills look at the pictures and whisper softly, “wow!”


The People and Things that made me

a Writer and Illustrator of Children’s Books

Marjorie van Heerden

February 2005

Before I start telling you this story, I want to ask you, please do not listen to me as if I am telling you my own personal story – then you will only become bored after the first three minutes. No, while you listen to me, please keep in mind that I am telling you the story of a writer and illustrator - the story of a children’s book writer and illustrator. And I promise you, that will be much more interesting than just listening to the story of a woman called Marjorie.

I have often been asked how and why I started writing and illustrating Children’s Books. To me it feels as if being a children’s book writer/illustrator was not a decision of mine... it feels that this was something that I was meant to do, that I had no choice. That it was my destiny. But if I think about it more; there were definitely people during my life, who guided, steered and influenced me towards working in children’s literature. And then there were also those people who prodded me to always take my work to the next level. But I am not finished with my journey and I am looking forward to learning, growing and developing a lot more... But let us look at here and now, at today and how I got here... and let me tell you about some of the people who helped me get here. I will start where most good stories start, at the beginning.

My Early Years

The first person who led me on the road to becoming a writer and illustrator was my mother. When I was a baby and during the first years of my life, and I remember this clearly, I thought she was the most beautiful person in the world. I used to follow her and watched her working around the house and in the garden. She had an amazing sense of placing things and combining colours and textures to make a pleasing picture - whether in the house or in the garden. From her I got a sense for placing objects and figures to create a balanced picture and to combine colours in an aesthetically pleasing way. Her attitude to life also gave me guts and perseverance. That’s something you need a lot of when you are confronted with a picture book for which you must do 32 full-colour illustrations and the deadline is rushing towards you like a steam train.

Then there was my father. He was an old-fashioned, true gentleman farmer who wore only white shirts and who changed into a clean shirt every afternoon. He was a very successful leader of the farming community and this in spite of the fact that he stuttered quite badly. He loved to tell stories and to play the guitar and in the evenings on the farm he loved entertaining us. (Now you must remember that there was no television in South Africa when I was a child. For home entertainment we had the radio, we had the record player and we had each other). I remember so clearly those evenings sitting in front of the fireplace with the firelight catching my father’s face and hands as he told us “Jakkals en Wolf” stories. My father was a brilliant story-teller. He used to tell stories with enthusiasm and great drama, pausing for a long moment with - and then.... long pause - you would not belief what happened next... long pause. And we would all stop breathing for the longest time... Years later he told me that those long pauses were often because he could not remember what happened next!! I learned a lot about how to tell a story from him... how to use timing and rhythm to heighten the drama.

Whenever my parents went to Cape Town, they always stayed overnight in the Grand Hotel and only came back to the farm in the Hex River Valley the following day. And then they always came back with a gift for my sister and one for me and it was always a book. And my mother would read it aloud to us. My love for books and for reading came from those special moments; moments of feeling happy that my Mum and Dad were back home. Moments of enjoying the very special attention she gave us when she read our new books to us.

There is one such an occasion which I remember very, very clearly. The book was “The Story of Ferdinand the Bull”. It became my absolute favourite! I found the illustrations amazing and I wished that I could draw pictures like that. I read the book again and again and again. Years later I found out that this little picture book was the very first anti-war picture book, written and illustrated specially for children. The story of Ferdinand was written by Munro Leaf and the pictures were drawn by Robert Lawson. Hamish Hamilton published Ferdinand in 1936, after the First World War and just before the nightmare of the Second War. My mother read it to me and my sister in the fifties – a few years after my father returned from the war in Europe, where he was very badly wounded and almost lost his life. I believe that my own deep-rooted aversion to the primitive, inhuman behaviour of people at war probably started with that little book. With Ferdinand the bull, who refused to fight the matador and who preferred to go and sit down in the middle of the bull-ring and just smell the scent of the flowers all the lovely ladies in the audience had in their hair. I was an anti-war flower child in the sixties and even today I am horrified by what I see on the TV news that people are doing to each other...

The playmates of my childhood days were my sister Renee (I call her Netjie) and my cousins Neil, Marianne and Louise. We loved playing a game where we first planned out a story scenario and then we became the characters in the story. We had a whole farm full of orchards and vineyards and hedges and interesting places, which became the stage on which we could play out our fantasies. We each had a horse and we were all good riders, so the sky was the limit to our imaginations as we rode around the farm, climbed in the trees and along the tops of the hedges and we became heroes and kings and queens and knights in shining armour – just like the characters in the books we loved reading. To this day I find it quite easy to think up interesting stories and I am blessed with an ability to immediately see the pictures clearly and in full Technicolor! Those days I had my playmates and my horse and the farm and my imagination and the wildly free energy of a young farm girl. Today I use pencil and paper, inks and crayons.

Although I have always had an active imagination and the stories come easily, I have always had a problem with formulating my ideas into words - I am dyslectic and I have difficultly to form sentences exactly the way I want them to be. Although I did not know that I was a dyslectic as a child, I realised from a very early age that I could draw a picture much more easily than I could describe something in words. I started drawing pictures when I was very young, like most children do. And my family always admired my drawings... My drawings became a way for me to communicate; I found it much easier than talking. So I worked hard at drawing pictures and colouring and painting. And I became “die kunstige enetjie (the artistic little one)”. I have often wondered whether I would ever have developed my ability as an artist if I had not been dyslectic...

But in those early days it was not only people that had an influence on me. There were also the animals I came into contact with. I always seemed to have an ability to communicate with any animal but of all the animals I had contact with, two stand out to me: the one was my horse Billy Boy and the other was a small duck that only lived a short while.

The first time I was on a horse, I was in my father’s arms and I was 3 months old. Throughout my youth horses were a daily part of my life. First there was Puck. He was a very old horse. He was quiet and slow and we all rode him when we were little. He would mostly stand around and he only moved when he noticed a bit of sweet grass a few steps away and then he would saunter across and nibble a bit before he started staring into the distance again. And we would do all kinds of circus acts on Puck’s back while he stood quite still, ignoring us completely and probably dreaming about the long life that was behind him. I was about 8 when I got my own horse... Billy Boy. He was a cross between a Basuto Pony and an Arabian Stallion. He was pitch black and he had one white foot. The first day I got onto Billy Boy’s back I kicked the heels of my bare feet into his sides. This is what I always did to get old Puck moving. Of course Billy Boy immediately started running and soon enough he threw me off his back. I decided never to ride again. But he was such a beautiful horse that I could not stay away from him. I started taking him a carrot every time I visited him and I started whispering all my secrets into his ear while he was chewing on the carrot. And so we became very best friends and of course I started riding him again. And I never kicked my heels into his sides again – it was just not necessary.

Billy Boy talked to me and I could understand him. Sometimes my playmates and I would have fierce Cowboys and Indians battles in the orchards. And then Netjie or Neil would shoot me and I had to fall off my horse and lie very still, because I was now dead. This Billy Boy did not like at all. He would then turn around and come back to stand right next to me – waiting and looking down at me lying dead still in the grass. After a while, if I did not move, he would carefully nibble at my shoulder until he could feel that he only had my shirt between his teeth, and then he would pull me up. And when I was standing, he would complain bitterly by curling his lip and making noises, almost like words, in my face. He would only stop after I apologised and explained the game to him.

And then there was the duckling. At one stage I had a few chickens and one day a neighbour, who kept ducks, gave me some fertilised duck’s eggs. I snuck them under one of my hens who was busy hatching out her own eggs. But only one of the duck’s eggs hatched. I think that little duckling believed that I was her mother. She used to follow me around everywhere I walked in the garden. She also used to play touch with me: I would touch her and run away. And then she would chase me, peck me on the foot, turn around and run away. Then I would chase her again and touch her and run away. And so we went on. That year we had a very cold winter in the Hex River Valley and the mountains were white with snow. So one night I wrapped my duckling in a nice warm blanket and the next morning she was dead, because she could not breathe. For a while I was very sad, but fortunately life went on.

I loved my animals and they taught me to absolutely, and unquestioningly believe in magic. They also taught me about love and character and, most of all, they influenced for the rest of my life, the way I draw animals when I illustrate books for children.

High School

After finishing Primary School I had to leave the Hex River Valley. I had to go to boarding school at a big English girls’ school in Cape Town. This was not a happy time for me. I missed my life on the farm and my Mum and my Dad and Billy Boy. The other girls bullied me because I was Afrikaans and not from the big city and because I was not like them. They mocked me and made fun of me when I got the English words all mixed up every time I tried to say something. But the school had a very good library and so I found a place where I could escape to. I took refuge in the library and I started systematically to read through all those wonderful books on the shelves.

Then one afternoon, on my way to the library, I walked past the “extra art” class and I decided to go in. That decision changed my life at school. It also led me to meet the next person who influenced my life as an illustrator. The art teacher was a small, but very energetic and feisty woman. She breezed into the classroom and sat down on top of the table. She pointed to the table under her and demanded, “What is this?”

“A table.” someone answered.

“No,” the teacher replied, “This is a chair. I am sitting on it, so it is a chair. Don’t automatically assume something is what everyone says it is. Look at things carefully. Use your eyes and your imagination. And make up your own mind.”

And so this teacher started teaching me how to use my eyes and my imagination. My art became part of me. Part of who I was, and who I was becoming.

University & the first few years after school

I went on to study art after school. This was a very exciting and stimulating time. I had a number of really good art teachers but one of them had a specially lasting effect on me and on my art. Her name was Katrine Harris. She taught Graphic Art at the Michaelis Art School of the University of Cape Town – she specialised in etching, lithography and print making. What I did not know at that stage was that Katrine was an illustrator. In fact, she was really the first South African children’s book illustrator. She introduced me to the exciting world of telling a story through visuals - how a text can complement a picture and versa visa. I spent hours in the print-making department. I learned so much from her, even how to choose type and how to set a text using old-fashioned printer trays, how to do rough planning, layout, combining text and illustration. So much...

On the 7th of September 1968, during my first year at University, I met Johann van Heerden - my soul mate. In the 37 years since that day Johann has always encouraged and helped me to create my art. He took me to Europe for an 18-month honeymoon to see most of the art I had been studying about in books. In every house we have ever lived, the first thing he did was to create a studio for me to work in - and I have had some spectacular studios to work in; Everything I wrote he would edit for me, correcting my spelling and grammar (fortunately, he is not dyslectic!); He has always taken my work seriously, believing in it even at times when my lack of self-confidence made me doubt myself. In evaluating my work, he has always been my most valuable and most honest critic and sounding board. And if I ever had the opportunity to go to a conference or a workshop he would always encourage me and help make it possible for me to go. So I have Johann to thank for my continued growth and development in my work.

Johann’s field is drama, theatre, film and television. Through him I learnt how the theatre works. (I even did some set and costume designs for shows he directed.) I also sat in with theatre people when they analysed plays or discussed productions. All of this was incredibly valuable when I started writing and illustrating picture books. I realised that, in a sense, the writer/illustrator can really be seen as the playwright, the set designer, the casting agent, the costume designer, the lighting designer, the props master, and even the director who suggests to the actors what they should do, how and when...

Of the people I met through Johann one who stands out, is the great French mime artist, Marcel Marceau. I attended a workshop he gave. The master explained that, to express a feeling, you should start it in the pit of your stomach... and then move your body from there. He demonstrated to us how hands can express much more than the face if one used them in the right way. I have never forgotten his comments and have often incorporated them in my drawings. I always draw the core of a figure first and the hands of my figures always form an important part of the drawing.

Our Children

It was about that time that our first child, our daughter, Alexia, was born. Something quite astonishing was that, when this child was born, she looked around her and she smiled at everyone.

For me a whole new world opened up. I started experiencing the world and life in general through Alexia. And suddenly I realised how much grown-up people fail to see. And how much joy, adults miss out on. Much more than being my baby daughter, Alexia was my tour guide and I the tourist. She even wrote a story before she was ten and, some years later I illustrated it and the book was published. Alexia has always been a caring soul who wants everybody around her to be happy. Not surprisingly she became a doctor when she grew up.

Three years after Alexia, our son Markus was born. He came into the world with a very pensive expression on his face and he looked at each person around him as if he was studying them or evaluating them. And my son had quite a different world to show me. Where Alexia’s world was a gentle, caring one where you always had time to smell the flowers, Markus’s world was like being shot out into space. From the start I had to run to keep up with him. When he was 3 years old he came to me and said: “Mamma, if you could move your hand towards a mirror faster than the reflection in the mirror moves towards your hand, then your hand will be able to pass right through the mirror.” Nor surprisingly, he became a computer programmer when he grew up.

Alexia and Markus have always been a source of story-ideas for me. I often also used them as models for my drawings; their words, thoughts, fears and joys have all been incorporated into my work.

Children’s Book Illustration

A very good friend of ours, Hennie Aucamp, the brilliant Afrikaans author, was visiting me in my studio one day and, looking at my graphic art, he suddenly suggested that I should think about illustrating children’s books. I liked the idea and I thought that this could be great fun while my children were still small. And then, once they grow a bit older I can go back to “real art”; to lithography and etching and painting and sculpting and so on. Wrong!!! That was 25 years ago...

Anyway, I liked the idea, so I put my portfolio under my arm and I did the rounds of the children’s book publishers. They were all very patient and polite and they got rid of me with the promise, “We’ll call you if we have anything that suits your work.”

One young editor did call me, and she’s the next person on my list of most influential people. Her name is Alida Potgieter. And not long after she gave me that phone call, the first children’s book with my illustrations came off the press. Alida was not only a wonderful editor with an uncanny gut feel and a natural instinct for what really works well in children’s books, but she also led me to understand so much more about this fascinating and challenging art form. More than only professional collaborators, we became very close friends – a friendship that has lasted to this day. After I illustrated the first three books for Alida, she began encouraging me to start writing too. “But you know I’m dyslectic, Alida. I can’t write!” “That’s not a problem.” she told me. “Editors can fix the writing, if it needs fixing. What we are constantly looking for is really good stories and they are very hard to find.” So, under Alida’s guidance and with Johann’s help I wrote my first picture book, “Die Een Groot Bruin Beer” and it was published in 1984. And I was hooked!

Then I discovered the book “The Art of Maurice Sendak”. Through reading that book I started realising what an important genre the children’s picture book actually was. It became something I wanted to know much more about. I started searching for more books on children’s literature – remember, this was before the Internet and such a search was not quite as easy as it is today. The local librarian in Stellenbosch regularly found me in the children’s section, sitting on the floor with my two children, reading book after book and sharing the joy of the illustrations with the kids.

Experiences in the USA

Then, one day Johann put us on a freight ship and took us to the USA. For his sabbatical year he went to do research and to teach at the theatre department of Northwestern University in Chicago.

We landed in New York City, where some people we met suggested that I should visit the offices of the Horn Book Magazine. They told me that this was a magazine about children’s books. I had never heard of the Horn Book Magazine before, so I simply phoned them and asked to speak to the editor... The girl put me through to a lady called Ethel Heine, who at that moment became the next name on my list of huge influences. At that time Ethel was the senior editor of Horn Book Magazine and she was already widely regarded as a guru in the world of children’s literature. Through her introductions it was possible for me to meet with lots of children’s book people while we lived in the USA. She also led me onto the path of seriously and widely reading up on the field of children’s literature.

The first time I visited her office, she lifted a stack of books off the only other chair in her office and gave it to me. The walls were solid with bookshelves, completely filled with children’s books and related publications and most of the floor was covered with heaps and heaps of books. She spent the next few hours enthusiastically giving me a crash course on what books I should read and what people I should meet while I am in the USA. She made me lists of names and telephone numbers and said, “You just tell them, Ethel said they must speak to you.”

That year we lived in Chicago was unbelievable. I went to children’s book conferences, I joined storytelling groups, I joined a writers circle, I visited the headquarters of Book Link and I made many, many friends. Children’s book people become friends very easily – they are normally that kind of people.

One dear friend I made was Ellen Greene, the next really big name on my list. A very senior academic, she was teaching at Chicago University with Zena Sutherland, and at the time they were in the process of organising a conference under the title “The Illustrator as Storyteller”. Professor Ellen Greene was one of the names on the list Ethel had given me in New York. I phoned her to ask if it would be possible for me to come to her conference. Unfortunately, she told me, the conference had been fully booked since 6 months before. (Not surprisingly, as I learned later.) We chatted on the phone for a long time. The next day Ellen called me back. There had been a cancellation and, although there was a long waiting list, she had called a committee meeting and they decided that I would probably benefit more from attending than the other people on the list, so they had decided to offer me the vacancy. And that is how I came to attend my first Children’s Book Conference.

I remember sitting in that conference hall on the first day and suddenly realising that I was surrounded by people exactly like me! At that moment I decided that when I get back to South Africa I am going to organise our very own Children’s Book Conference and I will bring all the children’s book people in SA together in one room!

Another very important thing happened at that conference. I attended a lecture by Joseph Schwarcz. He was one of world’s most respected picture book researchers, very highly regarded in his native Israel, in Germany, England and the USA. His talk was on how picture books influence the development of children. As he brilliantly formulated his findings after years of academic research, I realised that a lot of what he was talking about confirmed ideas that I instinctively felt, my own private gut feelings. His presentation led me to decide that I would stop always keeping my thoughts to myself. In future, if I felt strongly enough about something, I was going to say it... even at the risk of being wrong.

Back in South Africa

Back in South Africa, I spent months trying to convince people that such a conference should take place. I had an uphill battle. Eventually I met somebody who would become the next name on my list. She was Professor Jeanne Tötemeyer, head of the Library and Information Science Department at the University of the Western Cape and she was in a position to help me make my dream come true. And that is how the first ever International Children’s Book Conference in South Africa became a reality in July 1987. We called it “Towards Understanding”. We had 550 delegates and I managed to bring some brilliant international speakers to the conference, amongst them was Joseph Schwarcz, whose presentation I heard at the conference in the USA. During our conference Joseph Scwarcz insisted that I show him my books. I was terribly embarrassed, but I did. He took them away and read them in his own time. We met later and he took me aside, made some complimentary remarks and then he proceeded to analyze my books for me, in great detail and with marvellous insight. Over the next few days he spent every free moment he had with me and he would talk to me about children’s books and the insights he had developed over decades of extremely focused study and research in the field. In that one week I learned more about picture books from this brilliant man, than I might have done during a whole university degree course. This was the next lap on an amazing voyage of discovery.

Over the next number of years I went on to write and illustrate many books and I continued to read up on children’s literature. There are so many good and relevant books, but I have decided to share a very short list of 4 titles with you (these I can really recommend):

- Ways of the Illustrator, by Joseph Schwarcz;

- The Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim;

- The Language of the Night, by Ursula Le Guin;

- The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell.


One day a friend sent me an application form for a scholarship to attend the Highlights Children’s Book Writers Workshops in the USA. I didn’t even bother to fill it in because I thought it so unlikely that I might ever win it. Anyway, my friend kept on asking if I had sent it in yet, and eventually I did. Nobody was more surprised than I when I actually won the scholarship! So off I went to Chautauqua in the North East of the USA. For a whole week I attended workshops on writing and illustrating.

But, on top of all those wonderful workshop session, each attendee was given a highly experienced and accomplished mentor to work with you personally during that week. Between workshops, your mentor focuses on your work, evaluates it in great detail and helps you to develop your skill and your art. I could not believe my good fortune when I heard that Ed Young would be my mentor. Ed Young would spend a whole week with me, looking at and evaluating my work and helping me to improve my art! For those who do not know about this genius of a man, here is a very brief introduction: Ed Young is one of the very top picture book writer/illustrators in the USA. He has won the Caldecott Medal (one could almost call it the Nobel Prize for children’s books) – not once, he has won it twice! He was born in China and his family moved to the USA while he was still a child. Although he has lived in the States all his life, he has retained much of the oriental way of looking at life – and this is visible in his work as well. We spent hours talking about my work, but somehow he spent even more time talking to me about the philosophy of writing and illustrating children’s books. His focus and insight was clearly much deeper than a superficial, commercial approach to his life’s work.

Inevitably, that week, with all those amazing workshops and my unforgettable sessions with Ed Young, made me rethink my own approach to my work. In a nutshell, I had a complete change of mind set. Since then my work has never been “work” to me again. I have attained a very special level of joy and an adventurer’s attitude to my art. I am now always ready to try something new. I have discovered a freshness in my work – and so have my various editors. I was surprised to find that I had suddenly become quite daring in my approach. I started attempting things I would never have dared before. I changed the media I use, I changed the paper I had been using for decades. I even conceptualised, wrote and illustrated a reading scheme for learners, the Bright Books, accepted by educational departments and prescribed for schools across the country. A project I never thought I would tackle...

Now I have been talking for quite a while and I am happy to tell you that I am getting close to the end.


I just quickly want to tell you about the next exciting move, which coincided with Markus going off to university in Cape Town and Johann and I finding ourselves in an empty nest after more than two decades of bringing up the kids.

Johann and I moved to Greece, where we stayed for four years. Our house was in a forest north of Athens, on the top of Pendely Mountain, where the white marble was mined in ancient times to build the beautiful Parthenon. Here the indigenous pine trees do not grow fast and straight like the pine trees in South Africa’s plantations. These trees grow much more slowly and they weave up towards the sun. From my studio on the top floor of our house I could see the sun rays playing through the pine needles and, like fingers, touching the forest floor. To the north I could see five mountain ranges, all in different shades of blue and the colours changing every minute of the day. My writing and my illustrating became influenced by the colours, the light and the shadows around me. The Gods of Greek mythology smiled down on me. While we lived in Athens I illustrated three books for a Greek Publishing Company, the texts were in Greek and my illustrations were in that universal language that is understood by every child in the world.

While in Greece I got to know quite a few Greek children’s book writers and illustrators. One writer told me about the international Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and she asked me to help her start a Greek branch of the Society. I did that. And I found it a very exciting organisation. The SCBWI has its headquarters in the USA and it has 17,000 members in 40 countries. While we were in Athens, I also organised the first International Children’s Book Conference in Greece. We held it on the beautiful island of Hydra.

During the four years living in Europe Johann and I travelled quite a bit. I also New York again, where I made contact and stayed with my dear friend Simone Kaplan, who is also Children’s Book editor. And through her I met a brilliant art director. Harriet Barton, the next name on my list of influences on my work. During just one long conversation she managed to have a profound impact on my work. Harriet showed me how, what she called “a sense of place” could take my illustrations into a completely different dimension. With a few words, she made me realise how to merge all the things I sensed around me into my illustration. It was an astounding moment for me. Sometimes all one needs is exactly the right idea at exactly the right moment in time.

During that same visit to New York, Simone was helping me to do some work on one of my stories. We were talking about how one should use your senses while you were writing and designing the illustration framework for a story. Simone suggested that I should employ all my senses while I was writing. “At that specific moment of the story, what do you hear, what do you see, what do you physically feel, do you smell anything, do you taste anything?” It may look like a simple and even obvious approach. But Simone’s timing was just right and her comments managed to take my writing into a different dimension too.

Back in the Cape

We lived in Greece until February 2003 and then we moved to Gordon’s Bay, where we now live. My studio is on the top floor again, but this time the view is over False Bay. Since coming back to the Cape, I have started the South African branch of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and we had our first international conference in Cape Town last year. Since we’ve been back I have illustrated seven books that were published. One of them was a huge project – a 128 page book about Monsters! I loved doing that one!

There is so much I want to share with you, but I think I have talked long enough.

I feel an excitement inside of me when I think of what lies ahead. Every new project I tackle has the possibility of taking me to new places.

I enjoy what I do.

I like my work!