Picture Books from South Africa

By Dušanka Stojaković

These fantastic picture books I’m introducing below were first created in English by talented young South African writers and illustrators who also speak a variety of national languages. Their work has begun to be recognised internationally. New Africa Books, along with other South African publishers, has been working with local translators* to publish these stories in a range of languages. The themes – pollution, war, disability and racism – resonate not only in South Africa, but across the world.

I Am Air & I Am Fire

Written by Thembinkosi Kohli (isiXhosa speaker)
Illustrated by Thembinkosi Kohli
Published by New Africa Books

Thembinkosi’s focus is on the earth and how humans contribute to the destruction of our environment. These very simple books – with their unique, mixed media illustrations – attract the attention of young children. The magical combination of very little text, and strikingly evocative illustrations are guaranteed to enhance the understanding of our interaction with the world in which we live. The approach he uses is to show and not tell. His sculptures and paintings, which always depict the same unique character have been shown in galleries in Cape Town and Switzerland and are bought by adults.

Soweto Tea Party

Written by Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang (isiZulu speaker)
Illustrated by Sam van Riet
Published by New Africa Books

Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang and Sam van Riet have collaborated to create a moving account of a young girl in Apartheid Soweto in the 1970s. Her father is under house arrest – which means that he cannot leave the house, and no visitors to the house are allowed. The entire area outside their house is patrolled by the army of the day. This inspiring story is based on the author’s childhood in Soweto in the 1970s. Despite the bleak surroundings in the township, Nokuthula’ s parents were able to maintain a joyful, celebratory home life. Sam van Riet’s lyrical illustrations reflect the disconnect between the outside world and the happiness within the four walls of the family house. A timely book for our times.

This book is an ode to the value of hope, love and close-knit family and friend relationships, even in extremely trying circumstances.

The Girl Without a Sound

Written by Buhle Ngaba (Setswana speaker)
Illustrated by Thozama Mputa
Photographs by Neo Baepi
Published by New Africa Books

Buhle Ngaba is a young actress who wrote this book to encourage young women to find and own their voices. From the first words, we notice that this is not the story about the blonde, blue-eyed, helpless beauties that most little girls are routinely fed as children. The heroine of this tale has curly hair and chocolate-brown pools for eyes. Her creator was immediately aware of the rarity – she had borne a character in literature that looked just like her. The story is partially based on Buhle’s relationship with her aunt; the story follows the journey of a young girl whose fantastical stories live in her eyes. She has no voice – just a “golden cocoon” humming inside of her throat. Visited by a “red-winged woman” sent from the moon, the two begin the process of finding her voice only to learn that it’s always lived inside of her. It’s a classic tale of learning to love, trust and accept oneself.

We are One

Written by Refiloe Moahloli (isiXhosa speaker)
Illustrated by Zinelda McDonald
Published by Pan Macmillan South Africa

This book is described as “a comforting and lyrical book about friendship and ubuntu that celebrates both our differences and similarities.” Even though we look, sound, and act differently, eat different kinds of food and live in different places, the author shows we are all part of one human race. Refiloe Moahloli is has written several picture books, all of which have been bestsellers here in South Africa. She has moved on to writing chapter books, which have been extremely well received. Refiloe’s joyful, positive approach to all people is in evidence on every page, and Zinelda’s cheerful, colourful illustrations complement the text.

Meet Dušanka Stojaković

Dušanka Stojaković is one of three members of staff at New Africa Books, a small publisher that grew out of David Philip Publishers. It is the only South African publishing company with a focus on children’s books published in the eleven official languages of South Africa. As a child, she dreamed of travelling the world and learning to speak lots of languages – a dream that to a large extent has been and continues to be fulfilled. She would also love to explore her parents’ ancestral history and write a book about their lives, perhaps when she retires.

*isiXhosa – Xolisa Guzula (except for The Girl Without a Sound – Sindiswa Mbokodi); isiZulu – Busisiwe Pakade (except for The Girl Without a Sound –  Malungi Mbhele); seSotho – Masabata Mokgesi-Selinga; isiNdebele – Nomvula Masimula; Setswana – Lorato Trok (except for The Girl without a Sound – Keagana Moloabi); siSwati – Jabulane Ncongwane; Tshivenda – Livhuwani Madiba; Xitsonga – Hlongwani Hlongwani; Sepedi – Mpho Masipa; Afrikaans – Elna van der Merwe (The Girl without a Sound); Soweto Tea Party – Marita van der Vyver; I am Fire and I am Air – Tanja Malherbe