The South African Branch of the SCBWI

GOOD NEWS! The South African Branch of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is up and running.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has been active internationally since 1971. There are currently more than 18,000 members worldwide, in over 70 regions, making it the largest children’s writing organization in the world. For more information and to join the society, visit the web site

To put the objectives and strategies of the South African branch of the SCBWI in perspective, I need to give you some background:

The life of a children’s book writer and illustrator in Africa is a fascinating one. This continent, and specifically the “new” South Africa has to focus so strongly on education and basic literacy that writers and illustrators can very easily become submerged in producing “strictly educational” material, virtually on an assembly line basis. With a relatively small pool of professional writers and illustrators of children’s books, the same people very often work in the fields of educational publications and trade books, although relatively few of the latter are published these days. With the aim of having educational publications prescribed at schools and working within the strictly regulated parameters of curricula, and very often against virtually impossible deadlines, there is the distinct danger that a writer/illustrator may lose the magic of purely creating work to be read for love and pleasure. Keep in mind that talented writers and illustrators in our part of the world do not create educational material only for the money (it really is not terribly much), but also to try and contribute to what our president poetically has called “The African Renaissance”, of which education and basic literacy are keystones.

As I try to formulate this dilemma succinctly, I realise that these statements can open up a debate which could last for many hours and which may even then not result in a complete bridge of understanding between colleagues working in the first and in the third worlds. Nevertheless, let me briefly share a personal experience with you: Some years ago I found myself illustrating one schoolbook after the other. For month after month I worked wearing the straightjacket of educational guidelines and curricula, constantly being “guided” by educationists and administrators, even for art briefs (!). The results were quite good, the books were accepted and prescribed, but somewhere inside of me the child who needed fantasy, fairies and dragons was being starved. Then I had a lucky break. I won a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation Writers’ workshop at Chautauqua, USA. Some kind fairy decided that Ed Young should be my mentor for a week. I had long been an admirer of his work and I could not believe my luck. My sessions with him ended up being mostly discussions about the philosophy of writing and illustrating for young children, rather than actually evaluating my work. Under his guidance I had a complete mind change as to how I looked at the work I do, whether within the strict parameters of school readers or with the freedom of creativity in my own picture books. It put all the joy back into the career I had chosen for myself, or maybe the career that chose me. This may seem like a small incident, but I brought away a certain insight and perspective I would like to share with my colleagues and, if possible, I would also like to create similar mind changing opportunities for those of them who could benefit from it.

Away from my personal experience, and back to the South African branch of the SCBWI. This branch is very young – we had our first meeting last October. Together with my colleagues we have decided, rather ambitiously, that the initial emphases of our activities should be:

  • To create opportunities for members to learn and become well-informed about the industry we work in, locally and internationally.
  • To provide opportunities for members to communicate regularly with peers, to compare notes and not only to work in creative isolation. To share with and to learn from each other. In a sense, to create a community of children’s book writers and illustrators.
  • To stress and strategise with members around the importance of managing the workload in order to set aside time and energy specifically to pursue creative stimulation and to develop creativity and personal development.
  • To provide opportunities for members to compare notes about career planning and management (also to balance a contribution to educational work with freely creative work (trade books) without losing the creative spark).
  • To provide opportunities for members to make contact and to interact with established and successful children’s book writers and illustrators, local and foreign.

Looking at these objectives, which are quite a tall order, the members of our committee are planning the following for this New Year (details of date and place will be forthcoming as soon as all involved parties have confirmed and further information will be available by e-mailing me at ).

1. Bimonthly Critique Sessions: These will start after the St Valentine’s Day get-together in February. The objective is to prepare work for the review sessions in September (see below).

2. Regular Teas: A number of informal gatherings (“teas”) will be held during the year. These will have various shapes and forms and could be a picnic or a dress-up party or a bring-your-favourite-book event or a storytelling evening, etc.

3. Bimonthly Open Studio Day: Every second month (from March), Marjorie will hold an open day at her house at 153 Beach Road, Gordon’s Bay (10h00 to 15h00 on the 15th of every second month). Anyone can come and look at books (Marjorie has a very extensive children’s book collection) or chat about their work, or just come and have a cup of tea and chat about children’s books in general.

4. St Valentine’s Writers & Illustrators Day (February, 28): Local publishing houses will send representatives for “shoptalk sessions” to chat with members about what they are publishing, what is going on in the local market and to show examples of their latest publications – what is hot and what is not.

5. Week-end Retreat (April): A stay for members at a resort-farm in the mountains of the Cape, including a creativity workshop and specific writer’s and illustrators workshops on selected subjects (some with guest speakers). Also a planning workshop to further develop work for the review sessions in September.

6. Open House (June): Initially once a year, in June, a different local writer/illustrator will receive all members in his/her home or studio and will give an extensive talk and presentation on his/her work. The idea is to build this into quite an event and in future it may happen more regularly.

7. Critique Meeting (August): For those members who have booked for the September reviews, to finalise in detail their manuscripts for submission and illustration portfolios for presentation.

8. Review Sessions (September): Our branch is organising a series of one-on-one review sessions for our members, with editors and art directors of local and international publishing companies. These are planned for September 2-4 in Cape Town, directly prior to the IBBY World Congress scheduled for September 5-9 in the same city (for more information about the IBBY Congress, see ). Our members will also have the opportunity to submit original illustration work for an exhibition our branch is organising for the period September 2-9, to coincide with the review sessions and the congress.

9. Year-end Party: The idea is that this will be a typical “Schmooze”, held in early December (almost mid-summer where we come from!). Members will also be invited to come and show all books they had managed to get published during 2004.

Gordon’s Bay, South Africa
16 January 2004

Marjonie van Heerden
Marjorie van Heerden, Paddy Bouma and Thomas van der Walt Co-Regional Advisors of the South African Branch of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).
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