What inspired the character of Bongani and his adventures in Slowly! Slowly!?
Bongani is one of the heroes in my adult book Child of Africa. Slowly! Slowly! is one of Bongani’s childhood stories and this one, in particular, is referred to within the adult book. Until recently, my parents-in-law lived in Umhlanga, Durban, South Africa. Their house is considered city living as not much sugar cane or natural bush is left nearby. But someone forgot to tell the monkeys that they needed to move too.
The monkeys have adapted to life in the urban area. They run along the telephone lines; they raid the gardens and the houses for things they can eat. It’s sad, but a lot of the monkeys are not liked by residents, as they can be quite vicious when confronted. They also cause a lot of damage to the houses when they get curious and decide to investigate things. They can wreck your house if they get inside, and monkey-proof fencing on the doors and windows doesn’t always keep them out.
When my kids saw them, they just loved that there were monkeys in the yard. Through their eyes, I watched these beautiful animals as they travelled around in family groups, with little babies on their backs and continued to thrive in a world where so much had changed.
Originally the story was going to be set within the urban landscape to show how life had changed for not only the monkeys, but also the African people who once lived on the land, and are now urbanised in townships. However, when I began to write the adult book, Child of Africa, I realised that my setting needed to be more traditional, and in the wild - a traditional story and one where people and animals lived together in harmony. I wanted to show the traditional homes and the traditional families living together where the grandparents were close by - where the older generation and the younger generation were friends. A close family group.
I grew up rural. There are many dangers out there when you are smaller, but you don’t see them as dangers as a child. You see them as adventures. I wanted the wonderment of this type of adventure in my book once I began changing it to suit Bongani growing up, and no longer wanted the urban landscape.
We know that the name Bongani means ‘Be Grateful’ in Zulu. Did you always know that was going to be the main character's name?
I wish I had such foresight… This story was originally written with a different main character a few years back, but when I began writing Child of Africa, I knew that this was Bongani’s story and I wanted to see it in a picture book.
The original story was used in the CYA Conference competition. It was the year that Helene Magisson won, and her illustration career began (and she will tell you about that). But I can tell you that her pictures were outstanding, and when the opportunity came to take Bongani’s story and put it into print, her competition illustrations went to Wombat with my story and the reason I wanted her as the illustrator. I was just lucky that she still loved the story and wanted to collaborate on a book with me!
What do you like the most about writing books for children as opposed to your usual adult audience?
For the picture books - the pictures! There is no doubt in my mind that having a picture book was what I always wanted to do when I first began writing. To sit with my boys and read them one of my own stories at night as a proper book. So, to have it happen is a dream come true. It took close on 20 years, but better late than never. And believe me – the first night I get a copy of this book in my hands, my children will both be on the bed with me and I will read it to them, adults or not!
Seeing your characters come to life in pictures is one of the most surreal feelings – knowing that everyone is going to look at this book and see the same pictures you do is so amazing to me. Adult readers formulate the pictures from multiple words the author provides. This age group use the pictures, not the words for that. It's magical that illustrations help children fall in love with reading because of the story.
Children are a tougher audience than adults. They will study every illustration, they will get a favourite book and stick with it and want to read it over and over. They absorb everything in a book, and it becomes part of them. I love this aspect of children’s writing that they want to interact with the book, see if the illustrator left ‘easter eggs’ along the way for them in the pictures and they want to be able to tell that same story to you soon… Alternately, they can reject your book, and never want to see it again, with a brutal and honest opinion, but I hope it’s the first choice!
Your love of Africa is evident in Slowly! Slowly! Do you think it's important for young children to experience different cultures even if only through the pages of a book?
I do very much. Exposure to different cultures and ways of life when you are younger is really important. Too many people are quick to judge others later in life. To learn that your way of life is not the only way creates an acceptance of other cultures. You create awareness that people everywhere are different, and lots of what impacts on their lives, might not impact on yours, but other things that happen to them are very similar to your own.
Exposure to different cultures creates empathy too. Knowing that their way of life is what it is, and sometimes as much as we want to all be the same and have the same values etc, we are not and cannot.
Is the phrase, ‘Slowly, slowly, you catch a monkey’, one that you grew up being told or have told your own children?
It wasn’t an expression I remember from my childhood at all, despite being a Girl Guide for a few years. My baby sister, Dale, said it to me one day during a phone call (her late husband used the expression a lot) and, it didn’t leave me. When I started writing the story, I knew I wanted to use the expression in it, and it was only when I began researching the saying, that I found where it came from.
What do you want your readers to take away from Bongani’s story?
Smiles. Love. Feelings of something gone right in this crazy world we all live in. I want the readers to think more about compassion for the animals, and the environment, but more importantly, think about the way they treat each other as family. If just one person reading my work has stronger feelings to value their families, then my work as an author is done.