Isobel Randall, Children’s Book Editor at Ravan Press, describes her experiences.
South Africa has a total school population of approximately 7 million children, of whom about 5 million are African (and of the latter nearly 85% are in the primary classes); but there is still an overwhelming reliance on books produced abroad, at least as far as library and `supplementary’ reading matter is concerned. The established South African publishing houses concentrate mainly on the school prescription market – subject to government control – leaving the more uncertain area of supplementary and out-of-school reading material to others. These include certain newspapers, voluntary organisations, and a few small publishing houses, of which Ravan Press is probably the leading example.
There are several explanations for the apparent neglect to date of indigenous children’s book publishing in South Africa. An obvious factor is the competition posed by the big British and, to a lesser extent, American publishers, whose large print-runs and co-editions generally enable them to produce good quality books at a relatively low unit cost, and who have access to a vast pool of expertise and resources including writers, illustrators, book designers, editorial and sales personnel. The South African publisher entering the open children’s market faces financial risks, uncertain profits, underdeveloped or non-existent markets and difficulties of promotion and distribution. All this applies particularly in attempting to reach readers in the black communities. The townships have virtually no bookshops, few libraries, and most homes do not have books and magazines, while book-buying is not an established habit outside the relatively privileged white sector.
There has recently been a strong move towards monopolisation in South African bookselling where the controlling groups often demand discounts from publishers of up to 50%. At the same time the publisher, already faced with a low print-run, must attempt to keep selling prices to a realistic level in relation to the financial resources of most black families. Inevitably, publishers attempt to seek large orders from institutions like library services and education departments. In the South African political minefield however, this can create particular problems; the education departments are unlikely to approve of any books whose content appears even remotely at variance with official state policies.
My own experiences as children’s book editor at Ravan Press since January 1982 (after a career as a primary school teacher) may help to illustrate some of the general problems already mentioned, that face the small South African publisher attempting to produce books specifically for local children.
By 1982 Ravan Press had published six children’s books: The Mantis and the Moon; Once at Kwa Fubesi and The Bushshrike by Marguerite Poland; Tutti and the Magic Bird by Julia Boyd-Harvey; Under the Marula Tree by Patti Henderson; Mboma by Mboma Dladla and Kathy Bond. Marguerite Poland’s books had achieved local acclaim and The Mantis and the Moon had won the coveted Sir Percy Fitzpatrick award for children’s fiction. Her books remain good sellers on the Ravan list. The three other books were doing moderately well. I intended to build on the foundations laid by these books and I began my new job with enthusiasm and vigour but little real expertise in publishing, and with a very limited budget.
I began by trying to research the market. I talked to and worked with organisations like READ, SELRP (Sowetan English Language Research Project, then being conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand), ELTIC (English Language Teachers’ Information Centre), SACHED (South African Committee for Higher Education), booksellers, librarians, teachers, principals and, most important of all, black school children. It seemed that the need for relevant, local books covered all fields. There was no shortage of ideas, which came from almost everyone I spoke to.
‘What about a series based on local people in sport, the arts, or famous local leaders?’ suggested a librarian.
‘We need factual books,’ said one of the principals. ‘Stories are fine, but we also need books that teach the kids about technical things.’
‘Folk-tales are needed,’ said a primary school teacher. ‘We’re going to lose them because we don’t tell them any more. When I was a child my granny told me wonderful stories.’
And one ten-year-old boy, in a library lesson, said simply, ‘This is a book specially for me!’ He was referring to Joyce’s Day by Joan Solomon which depicts a day in the life of an African child. (Sadly, this book is now out of print.)
My search for local writers and artists met with many promises but little in the way of actual manuscripts. The unsolicited manuscripts that arrived were usually pale imitations of Marguerite Poland’s excellent animal stories. Few dealt with people. Those that did were often patronising in tone and contained racial and ethnic stereotypes.
After six months I decided to try to begin to fill at least some of the gaps by writing a series of factual books based on the extra-mural experiences of some Sowetan school children. I tagged along with classes of children visiting the Gold Mine Museum in Johannesburg and the local zoo. I visited The Star to see what children learnt about newspaper production, and I accompanied children to a local bakery. Arising from these visits I made rough mock-ups of some small books. I based the design of the books on the Ladybird Series, which are popular with black school children: the text on the left hand page is illustrated by a full-colour photograph on the right. Each book had a glossary at the back, as English is a second language for most African children and few of them have access to a dictionary. I tested the manuscripts by having classes of Sowetan children read them. They were a critical and helpful audience, and I modified each manuscript following their suggestions and those of their teachers. Their enthusiasm was encouraging, but Ravan didn’t have enough money to publish the books.
Eventually, after a time-consuming and frustrating struggle to find funds, Lindi and Jabu Visit the Gold Mine Museum was sponsored by the South African Chamber of Mines and appeared in 1983. Teachers and children liked it. But criticism – sometimes harsh – came from some reviewers who took a political view of my minor publication and saw it as propaganda for the gold-mining industry. Despite this the book sold moderately well. A Visit to the Newspaper was sponsored by The Star and TEACH (Teach Every African Child). The four children in the book are Salma, an Indian girl, David, a white boy, and Thabo and Zinzi, two African children. This must be one of South Africa’s first attempts at a multi-cultural book! It has been moderately successful, and in spite of its multi-racial cast it has had a quiet reception, presumably because it is located in a less sensitive area than gold-mining. The manuscripts of A Visit to the Zoo and A Visit to a Bakery have been completed, and if I can find the necessary energy and sponsorship, they may see the light of day yet.
Children’s books have low status and low priority in the South African publishing scene. Vernacular languages occupy a similar position. It follows that publishing children’s books in vernacular languages – although they are desperately needed if literacy and the reading habit are to be extended and established – appears to many a strange and foolhardy enterprise. It’s just such an enterprise that has occupied much of my time in the past year: preparing for publication two children’s picture books with texts in vernacular languages. The first, Our Village Bus, is a `first’ in South African publishing history. It is written by Maria Mabetoa and illustrated by Mzwakhe, both South Africans, and my hope is that its appearance will stimulate other local black writers and artists. It is a large format, full colour, picture book arid deals with a situation familiar to most rural African children. The story in the second book, Ntombi’s Song, is by Jenny Seed, an established South African writer. It was published first by Hamish Hamilton but is now out of print (like Jenny Seed’s longer story, Canvas City, which Ravan published in 1983 in a revised and updated edition). I liked the story which is set in KwaZulu and reflects many different aspects of South African society. The new Ravan edition has full colour illustrations by Anno Berry.
Both these books have been undertaken in conjunction with Hodder and Stoughton. Our hope is that they will be approved and ordered in substantial quantities by the relevant education authorities – each book can be produced with a text in one of eight different vernacular languages. If we break through into the schools market we will simultaneously publish an edition in English. We might even achieve a profit on the venture which could then be channelled into some of the other similar books at present waiting in the pipeline for lack of funds.
Ravan Press was founded in 1972 and publishes a range of books – History and Social Studies, fiction, poetry, children’s – which relate to the particular concerns of black Africa and in particular offers a voice to black writers. Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee are just two Ravan writers whose names will be familiar to British readers. Ravan was first to publish Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K which won the Booker prize in 1983.
Ravan is non-profit making and administered by a Trust whose members include Nadine Gordimer and Bishop Tutu. Isobel Randall is one of eighteen workers who currently run Ravan as a co-operative. Ravan books are distributed’ In this country by Third World Publications, 151 Stratford Road, Birmingham Bll 1RD.