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!