Ouma Ruby’s Secret


A book about a truly important thing – the ability to read

Author Chis van Wyk, who sadly died last month, often wrote from his own experiences growing up in a township in Johannesburg. This brings an integrity and truth to his books for adults as well as children. In this much loved book, he explores a secret that his grandmother kept while she encouraged him to read. CBN publishes this review by Jay Heale in memory of his life and to honour his stories.

By Chris van Wyk
Ouma Ruby’s Secret is an intriguing picture book story full of the reality of South Africa in both words and pictures. The story comes from Chris van Wyk’s much longer book Shirley, Goodness and Mercy and it concerns that time of his boyhood when his Ouma Ruby took him to a bookshop in Johannesburg.

Beloved Ouma Ruby (“Ouma” being Afrikaans for Granny) takes the boy Chris to a bookshop where he is allowed to choose two books. He does so, Ouma Ruby looks at them and approves, and they become his very own. He wants to thank her when her own birthday comes around, but having no money decides to write a loving, grateful letter. He does this and gives it to her, but she puts it aside for later. Chris’s mother explains to him that Ouma Ruby can’t read. That’s some secret!

Its origin lies inside Chis’s autobiographical memories, Shirley, Goodness & Mercy, where it is followed by a poem written some twenty years later. Chris refers to Ouma Ruby’s inability to read in these words:

Although much later I learned that the black words
on the white sheets that swept me across the seas
to adventures in faraway lands were to Granny
like coal strewn across a field of snow.

Ouma Ruby’s Secret was nominated as an IBBY Honour Book for the illustrations provided by Anneliese Voigt-Peters who won the 1997 Vivian Wilkes Award for her gorgeous picture book The Red Dress.

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