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!



I believe in Magicby Marjorie van Heerden
June 2005

Somebody recently asked me an interesting question: “What do you believe in?”

I did not have to think long. “I believe in Magic… Like the magic of Father Christmas. I don’t necessarily believe in a plump gentleman with a silver beard and a red hat, but I do believe in the magic of Father Christmas. I believe in fairies, not that I necessarily believe in little people with gossamer wings, but I do believe in the magic of fairies. And talking about wings; I’m not quite sure about those huge flying lizards with their fiery breath… But I am absolutely sure and I absolutely believe in the magic of dragons. I also believe in the magic of giants, and of wizards, and elves, and of course tooth fairies…
Maybe this is my bit of madness. Zorba said we must all have a little bit of madness. Maybe my little bit of madness is that I have to believe in the magic of things. That magic is what makes my life worth living. It is what sets my imagination free. And it sets me free to believe in what could be called “the impossible”. It sets me free to believe in all those wonderful and stunning and awesome things we all used to believe in… before we were taught that they were actually impossible.
And I think that is exactly the reason why I became an illustrator of children’s books. There, on the blank page in front of me I can allow my crayons to dabble in the impossible and to always spice it up with a teeny touch of magic. I always want to find a little bit of magic in each of my illustrations – sometimes I manage to add it consciously and sometimes it just kind-of appears “magically”! But trying to make this happen, really keeps me on my toes.
So, over the years I have been consciously exercising my senses so that I could see better, hear better, feel more… Because I had to constantly seek for that magic to put into my illustrations, I had to become really sharp. A bit like a five-year old! I had to try and get rid of a lot of unnecessary clutter – things like the stress of being on time for my meeting with the bank manager, or getting through the traffic in time for a friend’s book launch, or registering the headlines on the evening news, or trying to understand what Mr George W Bush actually means, or the reason why our money is sometimes strong and sometimes weak. I had to learn to ignore all those things which are not really important in the bigger scheme of things. I had to learn to focus again and to understand the things that really matter, like how sunlight can play with leaves, how shadows can hide shapes, or how the moon is actually alive and is playing with the sea. And once I got all this sorted out and once I learnt to allow the magic and the impossible to be part of it all, I wanted to put it all down on paper. And I think that’s where it started…
Over the years I have been incredibly lucky in the illustration jobs I’ve been offered… these were all jobs that needed some magic.
During the last five years I’ve had to draw lots of wizards and dragons, fairies, goblins, gargoyles, dinosaurs that talk, and even a magical moonchild. There were many more creatures, more than I can remember. Also monsters, lots and lots of monsters – even a delicious one! And then I could place them in magical forests, or in huge castles covered in silver moonlight, or on the shores of wild seas or under their waves. And I could paint the world in the colours I love. Anything is possible if you have a crayon in your hand and a blank page in front of you… The recipe is simple: Mix together the writer’s wonderful words, a generous pinch of the impossible and a goodly measure of magic. Let the old imagination do the rest! Somehow the images always come to me. I always manage to find them – I find them all around me; in the slow walk of an old gentleman in the shopping mall; in a dog running wildly on the beach; in the gnarled trunk of an ancient Melkbos tree…
Michelangelo said that the blocks of marble he got from the quarry had the figures inside of them and all the sculptor had to do was to let them free. Many times my blocks of marble are the words a writer sends through to me – then the visual images are buried inside of those words and I just have to set them free. I believe in magic. And because I believe in magic, I manage to help these images crawl out from amongst the words.


A review of Children's Book course in 2004 by Marjorie at UCT Summer School 
by Wendy Hartmann (Writer of Children’s Books, editor of Wings-SA SCBWI’s newsletter)

To be a successful magician – you have to pull a rabbit out of a hat (or even a bea).

Marjorie van Heerden not only pulled rabbits out of the proverbial hat, she pulled out so much more. The two-day course for illustrators and writers was a tremendous success.

It was a privilege to be part of a group that was exposed to so much information in such a short period of time. We benefited from Marjorie’s 30 years experience of writing and illustrating children’s books and we are grateful.

For every subject that was covered, there was an example of a picture book. We were shown the ‘best of the best’ of illustrators and writers – some of whom had never been seen before by the people attending. Jon Agee, Russell Ayot, Alexis Deacon, Satoshi Kitamura, Ed Young and David Weisner are just a few of the names. There were examples shown of the use of different media in illustration and we were encourage to experiment and continually reminded. ‘KEEP A JOURNAL – USE YOUR JOURNAL – PUT IT IN YOUR JOURNAL.’

The importance of the choice of fonts was mentioned as well as the overall composition of text and illustration. Other little things that are so important and sometimes forgotten. Did you start with a cat? Then end with a cat. Don’t ever let a child finish a book and wonder and worry what happened to that cat.

Read that manuscript over and over again. Know the story inside out. Know your characters so well - what they would do - how they would do it and even why. Use quirky or serious elements that create continuity throughout the illustrations.  Beginner illustrators gobbled up all of these points.

We were reminded of the responsibility of getting everything ‘just right’ and we were reminded of deadlines. Marjorie’s statement – ‘I have never, in all my years of working, been late for a deadline,’ brings the message home.

The subjects ranged from ideas, roughs, storyboards and dummies to final artwork. It also touched on marketing. ‘As an illustrator,’ she said, ‘your job does not stop once you have put your pen or paintbrush down. You still need to market yourself or remind the market that you are there and producing wonderful work. Make that calendar – print that postcard and send it off.’

One of the most important statements was that – the role of the illustrator was like that of a moviemaker. You are in charge of the props, the setting, entrances and exits. Not only do you choose the characters but you dress them too.  You are the director, the lighting expert, the scriptwriter. You are the moviemakers of books.

Marjorie’s talk covered so many facets of illustrating, writing and publishing that I am in no doubt that there will be shouts of ‘encore!’ There was a wealth of information condensed into those two days. I think that everyone that was there for the course can only say a heartfelt, ‘thank you Marjorie, for all that magic.’ 

One Illustrator’s Journey
By Marjorie van Heerden
A talk with slide show/power point - given at the Children’s Book Forum annual meeting - July 2003

Photograph of The Parthenon

Before I can tell you about my experience as an illustrator in Greece
I need to take you back a few years, twenty years to be exact. In 1983 I did my first professional illustrations for a book that was published. At that time we were living in Stellenbosch and it was a different time and a different world. The book was Soetlemoen en Nartjie by Cecilia Saayman.
A few months later Human & Rousseau published Die Een Groot Bruin Beer and this was the first book I wrote and illustrated.
When I look back at these first steps I am convinced that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Some months later we went to live in Chicago for just over a year and this is where I made my first contact with world famous children’s book illustrators and their work.

I fell in love with people like Maurice Sendak and the brave creativity of their work. 

Illustration from Jack and Guy (Maurice Sendak)
 Our two children were still very young and fortunately very keen “readers”, in inverted commas at that age, but nevertheless this provided me with the perfect laboratory to test the new books I discovered every day in the vast bookshops of Chicago.

Illustration from Where the Wild Things are (Maurice Sendak)
I realised that a picture book relies as much on its visuals as on its words, if not more so. This may seem obvious, but you will be surprised at how many writers do not share that view – this is one of the things that struck me when I got to know our colleagues in Greece better. I was surprised to see how under-rated the illustrator’s contribution to children’s literature is in that wonderfully rich old culture.

Illustration of Peanutbutter
Anyway, after our stay in Chicago we moved back to Stellenbosch and in the following years I was very fortunate to publish quite a number of picture books like the Peanutbutter series. And I also illustrated for some really fine children’s book writers.

Studio in Linden
In 1988 my husband, Johann’s work took us to Johannesburg. We found a lovely big house, with a large garden in Linden and we built a wooden shack in the backyard, which I made into my studio.
I worked in that studio, under a huge Eucalyptus tree for ten years. These were very important formative years in my work as an illustrator and writer. They were also very important formative years for our two children. We were fortunate enough to have a large Jacuzzi on the stoep outside the bedroom. This became the scene of our daily family gathering. Every evening after work the four of us met in the warm bubbling water and discussed the day. This was a ritual we followed 365 days a year, summer and winter. Sometimes for only fifteen minutes and sometimes for hours. And so the years passed.

Illustration of Monasteraki (Papas)
And then, one December evening we were sitting in the Jacuzzi. Alexia was home on holiday from UCT and Markus had just received his Matric results and was also preparing to go and study in Cape Town. My husband and I were facing the dreaded “empty nest”. And then Johann dropped the bombshell, “How would you feel about Mamma and I going to live in Greece for the next four years?”

21 Euripides Street

He was working for M-Net at the time and they had offered him a contract job with a sister company in Athens. If we accepted, he was to start on the first of March 1999, just over two months later.
Those were two very busy months! When I touched ground again, we had moved into a lovely house in Dionysos, about 30 kilometres north of downtown Athens. 21 Euripides Street sits in a beautiful indigenous pine forest on the slope of Mount Pendeli. Incredibly, the mountain is one solid block of pure white marble. 
A Marble Mine on/in Mount Pendeli

This is where the ancient Greeks mined the marble to build the Parthenon and many other Athenian landmarks.
The house had an attic room just perfect for an artist’s studio, with windows facing north towards Marathon and Thessalonica.

My  Studio at 21 Euripides Street
The View
On a clear day I could see from my work bench, five mountain ranges including the Parnassus Mountains where Delphi sits perched against the hang.

Sanctuary at Delphi
I would imagine that I could hear the chanting of the oracle and Zeus’s eagles screeching overhead on their way back to the navel of the earth in the centre of the sanctuary of the Oracle of Delphi.
I unpacked my library of children’s books and all my art stuff and could feel the ancient magic all around me – so different to the African magic which was my earliest influence and inspiration.
My dear friend, Joan Rankin has the normal sixth sense that all women have, but then she has a few more. When I told her about us moving to Greece, her first reaction was, “I wonder how your illustrations will change.” Joan has a wonderful grasp of life and the world we live in. She went on to explain that she believes that wherever you live, your creativity is also influenced by the stars and their cosmic effect. I was intrigued and I could not wait to see if and how her theory would work in my case.
Anyway, we settled in and I quickly got to know the lie of the land. Within the first week I got the hang of the busses and trains and I worked out my own version of sign language along with a few badly pronounced Greek words. Trying to communicate outside of the tourist areas gave a new meaning to the old saying, “It’s Greek to me.”

Pencil drawing of the Market (Papas)
I soon found the ancient fresh market where the housewives buy their fruit and vegetables and meat and fish, exactly where there great-grandmothers did two millennia ago. So, now we had food on the table.
And then I went out and, wandering through the winding narrow streets of Athens, I found all the bookshops that sell children’s books and books in English. As a welcome-to-Greece gift Johann bought me a bright yellow Volkswagen beetle...

Photograph of the Yellow VW Beetle
This little beetle was probably purring around the streets of Athens even in the days of the Junta, the early Seventies. The Greeks do not call it a beetle, they call it SKARAVIOS, the Scarab – I like that!
Our life in Athens was good! Being in Europe gave us the opportunity to travel a lot, and relatively cheaply. We explored the Greek islands on scooters, the best way to get around.
After a while I became quite wild and I drove the scooter with confidence, wearing my favourite purple jacket and my broad-rimmed hat while negotiating risky dirt roads and softly humming love songs.

We visited  Santorini
and Crete... 
  and Cyprus... 

and Prague... 

and Italy...
 and Istanbul (or Konstantinopolis as the Greeks insist on calling it).
  In Greece we also explored the main land and we saw wonderful places like Delphi and Meteora... 
and Olympia and Mycenae and Epidauros in the Peloponnesus.

Amongst ancient ruins and old monasteries built in the most unlikely, but heavenly spots, I spoke to the spirits of oracles and gods. Sculptures and gargoyles watched me passing by in my purple jacket. We climbed up castle staircases and felt the presence of knights long gone and we wandered through medieval buildings and old market places.
We ate the regional dishes and we slept under 2,000-year-old olive trees.
Johann under an Olive Tree
Sometimes the temperature was in the 40’s and then we swam in the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean.
Johann, Markus & me
Sometimes it got really cold. Even in sunny Athens, at our house on Mount Pendeli, we had snow every winter.
Once we were snowed in for three weeks over Christmas, so we ate mussels and drank Glühwein in front of a roaring fire. 

 And even the snow did not stop Johann from making a braai when we were tired of seafood!

We loved this new life and this new environment.
Illustration from The King’s Equal
We did and saw so many things and I was always aware of the energy and the wonderful light surrounding me.
Illustration from The King’s Equal
All of this was constantly feeding the artist living inside of me.
Illustrations from Greek Books
When we first arrived in Greece, I was in the final stages of completing a five-year project. While we were still in Johannesburg I conceptualised, wrote and illustrated The Bright Books reading series.
I finished the final illustrations in my new Greek studio.
And the moment the courier collected the last parcel full of illustrations I started to make contact with the local children’s book writers and illustrators. I contacted them through the Greek branch of IBBY and we had our first meeting in the coffee shop of a bookstore.
And once again the gods on Olympus smiled on me; one of the writers Voula Mastori, was looking at some of my work over her coffee and suddenly she said, “I have just finished a children’s book, how would you like to illustrate it?”
The book was called The Moon Story and for the first time my name appeared on the cover of a book in Greek letters!
And for the first time my illustrations were called, IKONOGRAFISI, – I was thrilled! Over the years some of my work has been published in five of our official languages and in French and German and Swahili and four different languages in Malawi and three in Uganda and seven languages in Zambia and so on. But this was different – Greek letters just look so great – sort of classical and important!
And so began my involvement with the children’s book world in Greece. At first I was just doing illustrations for Greek children’s book writers and I hosted regular children’s book teas at my house.
I illustrated a lovely book for the writer Vangelis Eliopoulos.
It was called The Three Teapots and again I found myself drawing friendly green dragons, but this time they spoke in Greek! The illustrations are quite dark, but I could feel the influence of the northerly light in the colours that appeared on the paper as I worked.
Then a very exciting opportunity came my way – again those smiling gods on Olympus! The publishing house Pataki got the Greek rights for Katherine Paterson’s The King’s Equal

I have always admired the work of this brilliant American author and I was very happy to do a set of new illustrations for her book.

Unfortunately the publishers could only afford black and white illustrations and a full-colour cover, but I actually enjoyed the discipline of showing Katherine’s interesting characters in monochrome drawings.
While working with these Greek publications I also started the Greek branch of the international Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators with another writer I met in Athens. I will tell you more about the Society later this evening.
Years ago, when we moved back from the USA to Stellenbosch I organised the first international Children’s Book symposium in South Africa. Many of you will remember that symposium and that it was there that we decided to start this Children’s Book Forum. Anyway, I decided to get some of my new Greek colleagues together and to organise an International Symposium on the island of Hydra

Our theme was May the Myth be your Muse and it all turned out to be great fun. We were fortunate to get excellent speakers like the brilliant writer/illustrator Tony Ross and there are few more beautiful spots for such a happening as this lovely Island near Athens.

Steve Mooser, President of SCBWI in Hydra
And while all this was going on I realised that what Joan had predicted, was starting to happen...
During those last few years, working in Johannesburg, I was almost exclusively involved in developing, writing and illustrating educational books. I was working to impossible deadlines, but somehow I always managed to make those deadlines!
I found that I was depending more and more on my memory for reference material and for colour and light. My illustrations became a world where all the emphasis was on the characters living in an environment of very little real or interesting background. The educational books were important and it felt good to be able to make a contribution, but somehow my world as an illustrator was becoming smaller and less interesting.
Now, living in Dionysos amongst those timeless indigenous pine forests, my vision and my imagination started opening up again.
These trees do not grow fast and straight like the pine trees in South Africa’s plantations of imported non-African trees.
In these natural Mediterranean forests the trees grow much more slowly and they weave up towards the sun whose beams peep through the pine needles and, like fingers, touch the forest floor.
Sometimes I would go walking in the forest and I would marvel at the gentle play of the sunlight.
Sometimes I would sit at my desk in the studio and I could see so far and I could see layers of colour that show the distance much farther than the eye should really be able to see. Much farther than any photograph could show you.
Or I would walk around in Athens, making eye contact with many sad dogs and negotiating around many more lazy cats. And I would find my senses come alive, seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling – just touching life. I wanted to put it all into my illustrations. I became swept along, hungry to try to capture a colour, a movement I saw. 

My paper, pencils, crayons and paint were not media to use for illustrating, but they became vehicles to take me on a journey. I became obsessed to try and work out exactly what the light was doing and how to replicate the colours, the light and the shadows around me.

Me at Apollo’s Temple (Delphi)
As for the writing of my stories; at one time I was really struggling with a piece of text. And then one day we visited Delphi again.

Me at Apollo’s Temple (Delphi)
I decided to take the draft along and to try again while we were at the oracle’s sanctuary. This is one of those magical places on earth. It has that magic that has touched human consciousness for many centuries, like the pyramids in Egypt or the Victoria waterfall or Meteora or the Cathedral of Notre Dame. These very special places have been spots of worship and quiet for so many generations and Delphi is to me one of the most special.
While the family went exploring I sat down on the steps at the remains of Apollo’s temple and I took out my pencil and my draft text. The muses came out from behind the trees, smiled at me and the words just started to flow.
And so every place we visited, every person I met, every scene I saw became another thing I could learn from. Yes, it was not only the natural beauty around me that was responsible for the changes in my head and in my illustrations; some of the people I met also had a profound effect on my work.
I remember a conversation with Harriett Barton, an art director from America who attended the Hydra Symposium. She showed me how, what she called “a sense of place” could take my illustrations into a different dimension. With a few words, she made me realise how to merge all the things I sensed around me into my illustration.

Illustration of Grandpa and Boy
A sense of place! I realised that it is not just a tree in the background of my illustration, but it is also the shadow of the tree, the wind that plays with its branches, and the sun that touches its individual leaves... But let me not get carried away again!
The past four years were wonderful, but eventually it became time to pack up again. As my husband always says, “When you reach the end of a chapter, turn the page and read on. The next chapter may just be even better than the one you have just read!” Johann never looks back. He is always on the lookout for what may be waiting around the next corner. He also has a saying he often quotes, “When you’re on a journey and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realise that the real end is the journey.”

So, it became time to pack up again and to leave Dionysos. It was time to turn the page. It snowed on our forest while I was packing and while the movers were wrapping our things and putting them all into a huge container to ship across the ocean. And when we arrived in Cape Town the bright African sun was shining! We have gone full circle and we are back in the Cape, where my journey started.
The most exciting thing is that, although I have turned the page, all those feelings have not gone away. All around me I can see colours, shapes, light and shadows that are, if not more so, just as exciting as the ones I experienced during my four years stay in Greece. These are the sights I grew up with, but somehow I see them differently now. Can it be because of my Greek experience or am I just a bit further down the road on my journey?
We now live in Gordon’s Bay and once again I have my studio in the attic and I have a window over my desk, this time with a view of the Atlantic Ocean, of False Bay
  My work area is new, but very familiar. I have started working again and the first book I have illustrated is already with the publisher.
But now, after a long round trip, after 15 years I am back in the Cape and I look at my situation and my work with new eyes. Dionysos was a wonderful chapter in my life, but here in the Fairest Cape the light is also magical and the sunset is quite humbling.
It is good to be back home... 
 and the journey continues...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  

Athens – June 2001

Calliope:  Please tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in children’s books?
Marjorie:  I grew up on a farm near Cape Town in South Africa and from an early age I loved reading and I loved drawing.  In South Africa there was no television before I was 26 years old, so reading books was one of our main sources of entertainment.  I also had lots of time to spend in my studio.  After school I studied Art at university and later worked as a graphic designer in advertising.  It was only when my daughter was born and I started reading to her (literally from the day that she was born!) when I re-discovered children’s books.  That is when I became fascinated again, this time as an adult and a mother, by the illustrated picture book.  I realised, through the eyes of my young child, the unique power and the beauty of picture books and it became my dream to write and to illustrate my own books for very young “readers”.

Calliope:  Which came first, the writing or the illustrating?  And for you, how are they related?

Marjorie:  My first breaks were to be commissioned to illustrate picture books written by other authors.  At this stage I was quite happy to only create visual images for the written word.  To be honest, I doubted my own ability to write really good books for kids.  I had learnt to realise how truly difficult it is, while it seems so, so simple.  My first editor, however, encouraged me very strongly to try.  And my husband, who is an academic and an avid reader, always believed in my ability and always supported my efforts.  And that is how I eventually took the plunge and wrote my first picture book.  Maybe because I am so visually oriented, my stories often start with a very strong visual image.  The story lines, the characters and the words form around the images in my head.  To me a good picture book has to result from a perfect harmony between the text and the illustration.  Neither is more important than the other.  Like the voices in a canon the words and the pictures flow together.  The words create the visual images, their form, their colour, their flow, their rhythm and their energy. The illustrations should become the words, their narrative, their humour, their irony, their emotions.

Calliope:  In your workshop, “Getting Started”, you made many helpful points.  Could you summarize what advice you have for new authors who aren’t sure how to begin?

Marjorie:  You have to know yourself.  You must always remember that you are an adult writing for a child.  You have to also know your reader.  Never read your own work as an adult – read it as the open young mind it is created for.  Try to find the child inside yourself again.  See and experience the joy and, above all the wonder of life as a child does.  See and experience things for the very first time, the way a young child does. Never, ever underestimate a young child’s intelligence or intuition.  Keep in mind that these kids were designed to absorb and to learn and to enjoy – all they need is the right stimulation, the right triggers. The seeds of thousands of wonderful stories are there right inside your head.  And you are gathering more each day.  Your strongest and most influential memories are almost always those of your childhood. Just forget about trying to be a “writer” and simply tell your story to that child inside of you.

Calliope:  Many new writers and illustrators complain about time management.  Can you tell us how you manage to produce so prolifically?  Any advice for others, especially those who also work at other jobs?

Marjorie:  Conceptualising, writing and illustrating picture books, like many other ventures, is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  It is damned hard work!  And it takes a lot of self-discipline.  I am in the very fortunate position that my writing and illustrating is my full-time occupation.  So, every weekday morning at about eight I go to work and I work a full day of between eight and ten hours. My studio, my “office”, happens to be in my house, but that does not change the fact that I go to the office every day.  I also have other responsibilities.  I do not have a maid or a housekeeper, so if there is washing or ironing or shopping or other chores to be done, then I schedule (budget) my time for those jobs.  In this respect I function like many other women who also work full days and still manage to keep the house.

Before I start on a new book I spend quite a lot of time working out a realistic work schedule, with specific set targets and specific target dates – I draw up a “project plan”.   And then I try to stick to it.  This is not always possible, but for me it is the only way to work.  It is not that I am overly flexible with the “project plan” and the schedule but I try to remain realistic and I never lower the standards by which I measure my final work.  The artistic quality of the end product is the ultimate measure and not the efficiency of successfully sticking to a time schedule.  Often a publisher’s deadline dictates the final drop-dead date.  Then, sometimes, I simply have to put in lots of overtime and weekends.  Fortunately I am blessed with a husband who does not mind preparing the odd dinner and he loves washing up dishes.  When I do have to push hard to meet a deadline, the challenge is to remain creative and to meet the deadline without compromising quality – this is when I remind myself that once the book comes off the press it stands against my name for ever…

I have huge admiration for anybody who can successfully write or illustrate part-time.  I wish I could offer a magic formula for a writer or an illustrator who has to earn a living at doing another day job, but I can not.   If your aim is to be published, then I absolutely believe that you and others should take yourself as an artist, and your work as a writer or illustrator seriously.  If you want to do it as a hobby, then remain an amateur and love it, as the word “amateur” indicates – there is nothing wrong with that!  You may not succeed in being published, but you can still enjoy the wonder and the satisfaction of creative work.  If you do have the ambition to be published, then my only advice is to make the time, even if it is only two hours a night and ten or twelve hours over weekends.  But then dedicate yourself to spend those hours “at the office” – make a contract with yourself and your family.  Like an adult part-time student, who works at a profession every day and who has to set aside the time for dedicated study every evening, you will have to create those set blocks of time for your 10% inspiration and your 90% perspiration!

Finally, never think about the money!  If you are destined to be the next JK Rowling, it will happen.  In the meantime, even if you cannot get your book published, you can still create a lovely work of art that you can enjoy yourself and that you can share with your own or your friends’ children in the one and only original artist’s copy.

Calliope:  Can you talk a bit about that illusive ‘inspiration’?  For illustrations?  For stories?
Marjorie:  I have already alluded to the 10% inspiration.  I honestly believe in that ratio.  And I do not believe that inspiration is “illusive”.  If one immerses oneself in the world of children’s stories and pictures for eight to ten hours every day, then the "inspiration" just magically happens.  Scientifically it might be slightly inaccurate, but I believe the strongest muscle in the human body is the brain.  The more you exercise it, the more it thinks and the more it creates ideas!  I have also surrounded myself with illustrated children’s books for the past twenty-five years.  My personal collection numbers more than 50,000 titles.  I dip into them over and over again and I often exercise my brain muscle by reading the words and savouring the pictures.  What is illusive, though, are those wonderful moments of spontaneous inspiration, which come from suddenly seeing and noticing a thing of beauty.  I find beauty very, very simulating and, yes, inspirational.  To see a really good work of art.  To see the beauty in a simple everyday thing in nature.  To see a child laughing.   Inspiration lies everywhere in the everyday things in life around me.  Sometimes a single visual image can inspire a whole story line, with characters and plot complete.  Sometimes a person or a character can inspire a story - or an animal or a flower or an ancient monument or a single news item in the morning paper.  Or a tiny, lost kitten on the steps of the Parthenon.  An innocent comment by a child or a simple question or an observation can lead to a story.  It all comes from life all around me. When my daughter was six, she had heard and read so many stories that she made up a wonderfully original story herself and she told it to me.  Quite a number of years later that story became a published picture book with her name on the cover as the author and mine as the illustrator.

The story and the pictures are so interrelated in my head that I cannot say that the inspiration for one is different from the inspiration for the other.  Sometimes a story idea is the germ of the book and very often a single visual image is.

Calliope:  What was your favorite project so far and why!

Marjorie:  My favourite project tends to be the one I happen to be working on.  I always feel that it is going to be better than the last one.  I find that I am growing all the time, as a writer and even more so as an illustrator.  Each new book I work on is an exciting new experience.   And always different!

Although creating picture books is my first love and not so-called educational readers, I do feel very proud of the reading series I conceptionalised, wrote and illustrated, the Bright Books.  This series of sixteen fully illustrated picture books takes the child from the very first day of reading at school, through to the end of the third school year.  It was specifically designed for the historically disadvantaged kids in South Africa and it is currently prescribed in many schools there.  The project took me five years of hard work, lots of research and a solid 90% of perspiration!  Not only do I feel proud as a writer and illustrator, but I feel grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute in my own small way to the education of the kids in my country where historically, through the whims of politicians, so many of them had to go through life totally illiterate.

Having said that, I have to repeat that every new project is an adventure.  The most exhilarating part is that Eureka! moment of inspiration.  The fun part is the long slog and many hours of taking one step at a time up that high mountain of putting it all into words and pictures.  The hard part is pouring my first cup of tea in the morning and looking through yesterday’s work and then realising that I have to redo it all, because it simply is not good enough.  The frightening part is when I look through the proofs and am given my final chance to give my last input.  And the moment of gratitude for having been given this gift of creativity is when the publisher hands me the first copy off the press.