We all know we're in trouble on literacy. We routinely underperform compared to other children across the continent on literacy. The Department of Basic Education's Annual National Assessment Report routinely finds that the levels of literacy and language proficiency in both home and first additional languages for our learners are cause for concern. Google the stats. They are depressing.
A major factor contributing to South Africa's literacy crisis is the lack of children's literature, both in terms of quality and quantity. State and school libraries are generally under-resourced or neglected. Few schools have skilled, motivated and empowered staff to curate, collect, recommend and develop educational and recreational materials for children.
But a bigger and often neglected aspect of our literacy problems stems not from a lack of writers but from a lack of illustrators.
Illustrations and the use of imagery to tell stories have a rich and long history in Africa. Before the written word, we used drawings to teach our children about their heritage, our myths and beliefs. Today, the use of illustrations to tell stories seems less acceptable. Much like oral storytellers, the work of many of our children's illustrators is grossly underappreciated.
When they are young, children respond first to illustrations and then to the written word. It is the pictures that draw them in and keep their attention. Those picture books become a gateway drug to chapter books and young adult novels and a whole world of books and stories, with or without illustrations.
Bringing collective imagination to life
Even as an adult, I still enjoy the narrative power of illustration in mediums such as graphic novels and comic books. Animated films and adult colouring books are popular enough to suggest that people still appreciate those who can bring the pictures in our collective imagination to life on the screen or page.
Yet despite these clear benefits and the massive opportunity to stimulate a whole new generation of readers through engaging, beautifully illustrated picture books, there is little or no investment in developing African illustrators across the continent. There are few opportunities for illustrators to work as full-time employees of publishing houses. Most are freelancers, doing what they love while the kids are asleep or on their lunch break. And most have day jobs as graphic designers, teachers or marketers because passion alone cannot pay the rent.
This problem is replicated across the continent and is by no means only a challenge for South Africa or Nigeria. In Kenya, for example, the Uwezo project in Kenya conducted a study in 2011 that revealed that only three out of 10 children can read a second-grade story in English. In many ways, these problems are even more acute in smaller economies where picture books are not recognised for the vital role they play in developing a love of reading that encourages young children to read more and in so doing, acquire complex concepts in their home and additional languages.
What does it take to make it as an African children's book illustrator? Talent is a major component, as is hard work. Perseverance and resilience have to be central. But luck plays a part too - too big a part, to be honest. An often overlooked aspect of finding success as an illustrator is community, the ability to connect with, share ideas with and simply enjoy being around people who love doing what you love doing too.
Creating and sustaining community can take many forms. It can be through online forums or writing circles. It could involve joining and starting organisation like the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, attending book fairs and book events such as those organised by the Puku Children's Literature Foundation whenever you can or entering competitions such as the Golden Baobab Prize for Illustrators or the Golden Baobab Prize for Rising Illustrators.
Community can't just be about illustrators bonding with illustrators, though. Established authors and publishers need to take illustrations seriously too. We are comrades in the struggle to promote literacy. There is no single private company or state that can fix things in literacy, just teachers, parents, writers, publishers, illustrators, activists, some luck, and maybe some funding. (Okay, definitely some more funding). If you want to join these ranks, it's never too late. There are only another two hundred and something days until the 2017 deadline for Golden Baobab, after all.