Reading Africa Week 2022 – Review Pearl of the Sea

Today Nigerian writer, publisher, and World Kid Lit Blog regular contributor Ayo Oyeko reviews a thrilling new South African graphic novel by Anthony Silverston, Willem Samuel and Rafaella Delle Donne, forthcoming from Catalyst Press in January 2023.

Catalyst Press recently announced its new Panel & Page graphic novel series, a fantastic home to vivid colours, catchy thrills, riveting words and exquisite themes. Catering to millions of readers of African graphic novels across the world, the series is certain to take us on a rollercoaster ride for a century and more. Pearl of the Sea takes a confident lead for the series – a compelling start for an unending journey filled with charms and wit.

The novel opens with a lure from the belly of the fizzy blue South African seas. Kitted out in her diving suit and wearing goggles, Pearl’s confident swimming points to a character who has found comfort in the waters, her silky black hair spreading like layers of clouds in daylight. Fishing to help her father with his bills is a productive hobby that has also helped Pearl cope with the painful departure of her mother. Everywhere in the deep is her turf – except the restricted wreck.

As the book flips into pages of remarkable illustrations, text balloons and catchy words, we are also introduced to antagonists, illegal abalone poachers. They are determined to make Pearl unhappy in every possible way, and also destroy the aquatic world for profit. The police in their speedboats do a good job patrolling the sea, but the poachers seem to be working harder than soldier ants.

“When we were first writing Pearl as an animated feature film, we were struggling with conveying the beauty and charm of fishing communities without overly romanticizing them,” Raffaella Delle Donne told me. “We were acutely aware that because the movie was targeted at kids, it was hard to showcase the fact that these fishing communities, like so many others in SA, are still grappling with the legacy of apartheid.”

The approach of the co-authors of this remarkable graphic novel is firmly founded in one of the monsters that has ravaged South Africa in decades past – apartheid! This opens the mind of the reader to the effect of fear and vulnerability on the choices we make in our lives. Pearl had to face her fears when she swam into the restricted wreck and came face-to-face with a monstrous sea creature that is neither as ugly as a beast or as cute as a dolphin. It turned out to be a never-seen-before kind of ancient creature that is quite terrifying when outstretched with its long, thick tentacles.

At first, Pearl was afraid, but the flood of fear could not quench the fire of love and empathy that was stoking in her heart. Pearl returned to the sea creature, again and again. What could be feared turned to what should be loved and protected. A striking bond forms between the pair, and she names him Otto!

For how long can this bond of rare friendship last? We don’t have to wait too long to get an answer as the co-authors of this captivating spread of plush colours and riveting words take readers through multiple twists of increasing pulse and sighs. The poachers return to feast but Pearl transforms into a new stronger being and readers are made to face their fears and vulnerabilities in order to be polished from stone to pearl.

When I asked Anthony Silverston to liken Pearl to someone he knew, he said, “I think she’s ended up being a combination of both Raffaella and myself – and a dash of Willem and Jessi who illustrated her too and captured so many wonderful poses and expressions.” It’s fair to give deserving accolades to the creative team behind this graphic novel. The synergy and creative mix devoted to the production of this story, is one that will be talked about in years to come.

Pearl of the Sea is not only a graphic novel without a blur but also an aquatic delicacy for young-adult readers – or anyone else with a large appetite for the genre. This work of fiction re-introduces you to a fresh shade of South Africa, the aquatic world, and yourself. Copies will be made available on sales by Catalyst Press on the 31st of January, 2023. Pre-order here.

Stayed tuned for my interview with creator Anthony Silverston later in the week!

Ayo Oyeku is a Fellow of Ebedi International Writers Residency. He has authored eight children’s books, and some of his books have won notable awards, including the Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Children’s Literature. He loves reading books to children, meeting writers, and speaking at literary panels. He is the Founder of Eleventh House Publishing.

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