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.’