I first started writing picture books when my children were young. Having an inspirational mother who read profusely to me as a child, I also read numerous picture books to my own children. Most of these books came from England, but when I started writing and publishing, I found that publishers wanted South African stories featuring our local landscape.
One of my most successful children’s picture books is The Gift of the Sun, which was translated into Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu, as well as Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Spanish and South Korean. It also won the illustrator, Jude Daly, the Katrine Harries Award for illustration.
As my children grew older, I wrote chapter books and young adult (YA) novels. My two latest chapter books include The Boy Who Hated Insects and, the most recent, Mind the Monkeys – both illustrated by Imile Wepener and published by Penguin Random House.
Environmental issues have always concerned me and I conducted a great deal of research before writing my books that feature South African insects and wildlife. I not only read up on vervet monkeys for Mind the Monkeys, but I consulted the environmental managers of eco-estates on the North Coast (where the book is set) to canvas their views on these creatures that are part of our ecosystem.
My studies in African languages and anthropology introduced me to African folktales and proverbs and l’ve compiled a number of collections of these diminishing animal, human interest and bird tales.
In 2023, I was awarded a South African Children’s Laureate Award by the SA Festiva of Children’s Literature in recognition of my children’s books as well as my tireless attempts to encourage reading and enable previously disadvantaged children to read and have access to books.
Most children and parents are so absorbed by their phones and iPads that they have forgotten how important reading is. A recent international survey by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study found that many South African readers in Grade 4 read without comprehension. Reading one-on-one with your children not only benefits them intellectually but improves bonding as well, as children love stories!
These days, I spend much time teaching creative writing (I have an MA in South African Literature and Creative Writing) in schools and to adult groups. This year, I have been fortunate to offer writing workshops at the University of Cape Town summer school, the Franschhoek Literary Festival, and the Hermanus FynArts Festival.
Words by Dianne Stewart
Opening photo by Lizane Lundie