Collaborative Book Making

Produce a book in five days? Or, even quicker, produce one in 12 hours? Is that really possible? Organisations like Book Sprint and Book Dash have proved that it is. And a key to making it happen is collaboration. On a writing Masterclass with Getsmarter I did a few years ago I learnt what many book writers know already: that the process involved in having a book published traditionally is lengthy. Apart from actually writing the book (which took me the ten months of the Masterclass), publishing can take as long as 18 months after acceptance of a manuscript.

Book Dash, by contrast, does everything from the initial script to completed layout in just one day. They do this in a slick process of bringing together selected teams of writers, editors, illustrators and designers. These four-person teams work feverishly, producing one of twelve spreads every 45 minutes, until the book is complete. In Book Sprint the writing takes place during the Sprint, whereas in Book Dash the writer comes up with the story concept prior to the Dash. In the latter, therefore, the pressure on the day really lies with the illustrator. I took part in the October 2022 Book Dash in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, at a beautiful location in Kloof. I took part as a writer. Prior to the date I submitted to my team my children’s story on a template of twelve spreads. Then on the day I watched the illustrator, Cristy Zinn, draw one illustratable concept per spread onto her iPad Pro using a stylus and the software Procreate. Once done, she sent each spread to the designer, Salma Haffejee, who set it in a predetermined layout. In between, Salma designed the endpapers and chose one of Cristy’s illustrations for the title page. During the day, our editor, Zanri Kritzinger (who is a full-time employee of Book Dash), consulted with myself about the story flow. This meant that when Cristy sent in her last spread at about 7pm (and was able to uncramp her fingers), Salma slotted it in place and our children’s book was done!

One of the main reasons Book Dash has formulated this model is that it provides its published books free. This 12-hour process, manned by volunteers, cuts out the costs of traditional publishing. (For more information on Book Dash’s social impact publishing visit their website.) But I wonder if this model could be spread to traditional publishing, too? In the latter, for picture books, illustrators are generally appointed by the publisher and don’t work in conjunction with the writer. But I learnt so much in the Dash from seeing how illustrators and designers work. I got to understand their requirements better, saw how my writing could make their jobs easier. I enjoyed the repartee, making suggestions, hearing suggestions in return. It really made our book, The Sausage Dog, come alive! Collaboration was key.



I love children’s books with a message. Messages that grapple with weighty subjects. Subjects that are dealt with in ways that promote discussion and convey perspective. Even amongst young children. Two picture books shortlisted for this year’s Kate Greenaway medal do just that. They are Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson, and Drawn Across Borders by George Butler. Both books feature pictures that are formed either around the words, or as part of the words. That is, not separated by blank space or whole pages. I find this makes for more natural ‘reading’ of both words and pictures.

In Milo Imagines the World we meet a little boy travelling on a train with his sister. Milo feels like a ‘shook-up soda’ because of his mixed emotions of love, worry, excitement and confusion. We realise only at the end of the journey why Milo has these emotions: he is going to visit his mother who is in prison. Milo deals with these emotions by drawing the people he sees on the train, imagining them in their private worlds. On a couple of pages we even see Milo’s hand as it clutches the pencil while drawing in the notebook. But, after some time, Milo stops drawing and looks at his own reflection in the train window, wondering what people think when they look at his face. It is this perspective that prepares Milo to see that we simply cannot judge people by their appearance. Milo, and the reader by extension, learns compassion.

Drawn Across Borders is unique, certainly in my experience of children’s books. Its author, George Butler, is a reportage illustrator who covers stories of migration. In the book Butler explains some of his pictures and his experience of drawing them. His words are aimed at children or young adults, and his subjects often feature children: boys sifting through the rubble of their home, a girl smiling at him while she stands in a long queue for food, a boy lying on a hospital bed after having lost one leg in an explosion. It is these children, and otherwise ordinary people, upon whom Butler focuses, revealing what it is like to live as a refugee. The drawings in fine ink with splashes of water colour have an unfinished look about them, perhaps reflecting the impermanence of their subject matter. The people in the pictures come from 11 different countries, Syria, Kenya, Serbia, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan among them. The people migrate for various reasons: work, war, urbanisation. Drawn Across Borders made me realise just how many people live shifting, insecure lives. I see afresh how very secure and stable is my own home life. The drawings, as opposed to photos, are appropriate for children to see. But I think a book like this is, is best read in collaboration with adults. It is worth exposing children to Drawn Across Borders because, like Milo in Milo Imagines the World, children may gain both compassion and perspective. I certainly did.

Shadowing Children’s Book Awards

Have you heard of ‘shadowing’ book awards? The Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Awards is an annual award that honours exceptional writing and illustration in books for children. Book reading groups can sign up on the website to ‘shadow’ the awards process. This involves choosing books from the longlist, and then the shortlist, reading and discussing the books, and then posting reviews on the site. The Carnegie section of the award is for superb writing, and is named after Andrew Carnegie, a nineteenth-century champion of libraries. The Kate Greenaway section awards outstanding illustration, and is named after a nineteenth-century artist known for her children’s illustrations. Whilst the shadowing process is aimed at young people, I belong to a shadowing group of adults who are interested in children’s literature. When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten is a Carnegie longlisted book we read recently.

When Life Gives You Mangoes is a beautifully told tale of friendship between children, the heartbreak of losing that friendship, and the difficulty of adjusting to life without them. Protagonist Clara lives in Sycamore in the formerly colonised Caribbean, an area prone to tropical storms, and good for fishing and surfing. Sycamore is a small village peopled with unique characters, like the grumpy Ms Gee, the dishonest and judgmental Pastor Brown, the new girl, Rudy, Clara’s outcast Uncle Eldorath, and snobby Gaynah, Clara’s best friend.

Clara and Gaynah fall out with each other and Clara teams up instead with Rudy, Ms Gee’s granddaughter who has recently arrived from England. Through childhood games like ‘pick leaf’ and ‘make believe’ it becomes apparent that Clara has suffered a trauma that has to do with the sea and which she can’t remember. A former budding surfer, Clara will now not go anywhere near the sea, much to her parents’ concern. Clara’s parents try to help her by taking her to the Bishop but this initiative fails. When Clara draws closer to her Uncle Eldorath she discovers that the two of them share a history of loss. Through their relationship Eldorath is restored to the community of which he was an outcast, and Clara remembers the event that has so changed her life. She is finally able to put the past to rest and renew her love of surfing and the sea.

Secrets abound in this novel and Kereen Getten constructs these carefully throughout, disclosing them all right near the end. They include broken relationships, death and the heart of community. This keeps the reader glued to the page. Each character is unique and well-drawn, and the friendship highs and lows between Clara, Gaynah and Rudy so age appropriate. Clara’s parents are depicted as ordinary, loving, concerned parents and Clara’s bond with them is touching, particularly with that of her father. The challenges experienced through island living and destructive tropical storms create an authentic setting, especially as they relate to small communities.

When Life Gives you Mangoes is an excellent book for middle grade readers, detailing the small issues of friendships and relationships that mean everything to children at this age. It also gently covers the heartbreaking subject of what it is to lose a best friend to death, and the process required in coming to terms with that. I was pleased to have been part of shadowing this beautiful book. I highly recommend it.

Telling Tales that Make You Sit Up & Listen

In this stirring video Sir David Attenborough tells us humans how we can save our planet from destruction. How we can provide a sustainable future. To do it, says Attenborough in the video, we need to ‘rewild’ our planet. Rewilding will help people move back into a harmonious balance with nature.

Attenborough outlines three other ‘simple’ ways to save our planet: phase out fossil fuels, produce food more efficiently, and correctly manage our oceans.

Attenborough’s video has helped raise the profile of a crisis that most of us simply ignore.the wolf wilder

In light of this heightened awareness I found it interesting that – shortly before I saw this video – I read a children’s book called The Wolf Wilder. Author, Katherine Rundell, bases this exotic adventure on the real concept of ‘rewilding’ wild animals who have formerly been tamed. In the story the wolf wilder is actually a feisty young girl called Feodora who lives in freezing Russia with her wolf-wilding mother and a pack of wolves. When Feo’s mother is kidnapped Feo chases after her with the wolves, making friends as she goes and starting a revolution. It’s an entrancing, almost bizarre story in which children – and wild wolves – are firmly the heroes. I highly recommend it.

Reading fiction – especially in the Wolf Wilder’s case – is an entertaining way of confronting very serious issues. Likewise, non-fiction told in narrative form can be an effective way of holding and at the same teaching an audience. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a case in point.

the radium girlsAs recently as 2011 a bronze statue was unveiled in Ottawa, Illinois to commemorate a group of women ‘dial painters’ known as the ‘radium girls’. Kate Moore tells in her book The Dial Painters the horrific story of young women who were employed in America during World War I to paint dials on watches and clocks used in the war effort. The paint these women used contained radium. The poisonous effects of the radium on the women were astounding. Bones became brittle, teeth loosened, jawbones cracked and fell out of the gums, cancers grew to huge proportions and blood markers changed. Many died excruciatingly painful deaths. And even in death the women’s skeletons glowed with radium.

What was even more astounding was their employers’ cover-up, denial and outright lies regarding the dangers of radium. It was the bravery of a handful of these women that finally resulted in proper workplace safety standards and government legislation regarding radium. The contribution to science – thanks to the girls’ suffering – has been invaluable.

All of this was told in an easy-reading style – as a story – as opposed to history. The characters were written by Moore as real, individual – and therefore relatable – people. I also highly recommend this book.

Reading: An Entry into Other Worlds

I bumped into a friend and his 12-year-old daughter at a market recently. The young girl, whose pen name is Tamika, enthusiastically told me about a book she’d been reading, Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Treese. Words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and Tamika’s excited description whet my own appetite for what sounded like an historical fiction book for children.

Using history as a base for children’s fiction is a wonderful idea. After borrowing Cue for Treason from my local library and reading it for myself I read another children’s book in the same genre, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell. The Explorer is a story about four children whose aeroplane crash lands in the Amazon jungle. There they meet an Explorer who – though unnamed throughout – is reminiscent of Percy Fawcett, the real-life adventurer who went missing without trace while searching for the Lost City of Z (see my previous review All the children are transformed by the experience and at least two of them grow up to be explorers themselves!

Like my young friend Tamika, Rundell is enthusiastic about her genre and about reading. Copious historical research as well as a visit to the Amazon made up Rundell’s groundwork for The Explorer. But so too did books Rundell read as a child, books that caused her to be ‘in love with the world of a book’. (Read an interview with Katherine Rundell here As a writer herself Rundell is wonderfully descriptive. And, like the books she read as a child, Rundell has likewise created in The Explorer a book that easily transports the reader to another realm.

Descriptiveness – or lack thereof – was Tamika’s one criticism of Cue for Treason, a book she otherwise loved. Read Tamika’s review of Cue for Treason here:

‘The main characters in this book are Kit, Shakespeare, Sir Joseph and last, but certainly not least… Peter.

‘Pete or Peter is accused of a crime, a crime he did indeed do and all the people in his small town know it. The 14-year-old has to escape from home with a few of his family’s pennies and bread and cheese. He has to survive on the road where he meets Kit and then Shakespeare. Kit and Peter learn that the queen will be killed. When Pete becomes an actor and Kit’s friend, they go on their way to warn the good Queen Bess about her murder. Will Pete be kidnapped with all the things he knows? Will Kit have to travel alone? So many secrets, so many lies. Who is a friend, who is a foe?

‘I think this book could have used more description of the characters but I guess everyone can make up their own characters. I mean I’d like to know what Kit looked like. I did love the vigorous verbs. It was a wonderful book and we read it every night. We couldn’t put it down! 70%’.

Tamika, thank you for sharing your review and for your passionate recommendation!





The Magic World of Fiction

Tired of your daily diet of news? Want to escape into the world of fantasy? Hamilton Wende’s Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut and Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu are just the right books for you to do that. Wende has created a unique South African tale about a little girl called Arabella who lives both in the real world and in the magic one.

In Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut Arabella’s happy home life in Johannesburg is tragically altered by the death of her father to cancer. At around the same time Arabella meets some unusual characters who teach her how to enter the world of magic. Wonder of wonders Arabella turns into a butterfly, learns to fly and befriends a bunch of insects in her garden. But even in the magic world there are difficulties and Arabella, together with her insect friends, is called upon to use her newfound powers to defeat a dark enemy intent on taking over the world.

Wende cleverly intersects Arabella’s real world with her magic one, making both worlds credible. In the two realities Arabella is required to learn, grow, be brave, make good choices and deal with adversity. Her adventures in magic are a delightful vehicle for young readers to grapple with their own struggles. The story is full of tongue-in-cheek humour, too. The fearful foe is a hadeda called Ozymandias (after the character in a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem), and one of Arabella’s insect friends is none other than – the normally vilified – Parktown Prawn!

In the second book, Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu Arabella’s adventures take her to Knysna where she meets some clacking oysters, slow-swimming seahorses and noble elephants. Wende’s use of animals big and small in his tales has the effect of placing his protagonist in the larger web of life.

In this story, as in book one, Arabella lives in two worlds. Her problems at school and with friends grow steadily worse. At the same time she is desperately needed in the magic realm to defeat a terrible monster called Krakobek. Apart from this crocodile-cum-hyena-cum-scorpion beast, most of the characters in book two exhibit both good and bad traits. In other words, they are relatable to readers.

What is special about the Arabella stories is that they are ‘very consciously South African and non-racial’. Wende uses names and characters that reflect a range of South African characters, and give a deep humanity to all.

‘I had a deep desire to reflect the good things in South Africa,’ said Wende when I interviewed him. I think he has done just that in these two Arabella stories. I’m delighted, as will be fans of the well-received books, that Wende is busy on book three. ‘I owe it to myself to make it a trilogy,’ he said.

Hooray! I look forward to Arabella three, Hamilton Wende! The Arabella books are suitable for tweens, retail at R170 each and can be purchased at all good book stores or online at