Jay Heale celebrates the unsung heroines in the background of two very, very good picture books.
I’m going to tell you about four ladies in the world of South African children’s literature. One of them in particular, though they work as a team.
At the helm of the picture book production of Human & Rousseau for 18 years has been the quiet but positive lady, Aldré Lategan. She retires next month, so this is a tribute to her. You never see her name printed in a book, although she has been commissioning editor, publisher and general guardian angel watching over her publications.
The names you do see (on the cover) are those of the author and illustrator: in this case author Wendy Hartmann and illustrator Joan Rankin. Having said that, Wendy is also an artist, and Joan has written many books. So they know the game.
Hidden away in the small print behind the title page, you might spy the name of Teresa Williams, with the words “Designed by”. After Wendy and Joan have put forward the idea of each book, Aldré made the decision to publish (and when and how), and Teresa pushed the pieces into place.
This quartet created the two books Just Sisi and Sisi Goes to School (and Other Stories) which I consider two of the finest picture books to appear in South Africa for several years. Both books contain five little story-pieces. In the second one, Sisi (a spritely young African hare, though otherwise much like any small girl) is looking forward to going to school but there is a problem … who is going to look after her beloved doll while she is away? With that happily resolved, Sisi then learns how to make the sound of the wind from a carved pipe, waits impatiently while Daddy builds something in his workshop. Then comes the story of how grandmother – Gogo in a floral dress and fluffy shawl – decides to have a puppy in her house. And finally, an almost wordless picture-story of how Sisi sends a kiss through the sky towards her Gogo.
It’s a generously-sized book, over 120 pages, and much of the background is white. Young eyes can concentrate more easily on the lively characters in action. Sometimes the text is beside the picture, sometimes on the facing page, sometimes the picture carries the next stage of the story without need for words. But always, the arrangement on the page is well thought-out, varied and clear. When Daddy brings his surprise creation out of the shed, what were near-empty pages burst into large fullness of colour and detail for a young eye to feast upon.
Then, and this is the part that I love best, the final story, “A kiss for you”, is visually different. The usual bright colours are muted, soft grey and ochre, they spread right to the edge of the page and beyond, as Sisi’s kiss is carried by the wind over the grass and fields, past the great marula tree, through the wide, darkening air … to be safely received.
The quartet of ladies have, through teamwork, created two master-works. Just Sisi. Sisi goes to school. Just lovely!
Freelance reviewer specialising in youth literature from South Africa and around the world. Editor of www.bookchat.co.za