Being a Young Writer By Kopano Matlwa

Kopano Matlwa is the author of Coconut & Spilt Milk and the recipient of  the 2007 EU Literary award and 2010 Wole Soyinka Prize for literature in Africa.

It’s always difficult to know what to say when asked for ‘writing tips’ because I’ve never really quite felt like I was qualified to do anything of the sort. Writing for me has always been a dance with God, often beginning with me forgetting the steps, going off rhythm, losing my nerve and ending with me surrendering to another lesson where I must be taught the moves again, where I must be reminded to ignore the reflections of my misshapen self in the mirrors that line the walls, where I must submit to being led and find contentment in letting God choose the music and the pace.

I’m not even sure how I managed to get two books out- and am always surprised by what is in there. Would it be too fanciful to say they write themselves? I don’t know. Anyway, it’s not a craft I feel I’ve mastered and so I hesitate to give “tips.”

However, what I would say though, is to surrender. Let your pen relax in your hand and your notebook lie loosely on your lap. Let whatever comes, come, and try not to think too far into the plot. Just pour all of yourself into that very moment, into the great opportunity you have been given to add to the story of humanity. Do not worry if it’s poignant, witty, timely, let it be what it is. Let it be. Worry not about an audience, worry more about the unseen audience, the eternal audience that won’t hesitate to prickle your conscious when you dare to write from a place of dishonesty. And read! Read as much as you can. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. Read adverts, menus, newspapers, chewing gum wrappers, food labels, good books, bad books, fiction and non-fiction, books with more pictures than words and books that you meet in trains, on the street, at your workplace and in your home.

I’m excited for you. It’s such a wonderful thing, such a joy. Stop reading this and go get started!


Stories that African Children Will Love by Tanja Galetti

Tanja Galetti is an accomplished school librarian who has worked with children from all over the world.

Dear Writer (of African children’s literature),

When I was asked by the lovely Nanama Acheampong to contribute an article with advice for writers on “Stories African Children Will Love” for Golden Baobab’s website, I thought never in the world would I be able to do this! Reading and enjoying books is one thing, but giving advice on the writing of these stories is totally different. Plus, I am an adult and European. The odds seemed totally against me.

But then, as I was thinking more and more about it, because Golden Baobab is such a wonderful cause to support, I thought that I might actually have some ideas to share. As a reader, I know what I am looking for in a story. I know what pulls me into a story – and over the years working as a school librarian with children from all over the world, I have been able to observe that even though readers might like different kinds of genres, what really hooks us all to a story is very similar. It doesn’t really seem to matter where we come from, whether we are a boy or girl, young or old, a good story manages to capture us no matter what. (By the way, that’s also why I believe that everyone is a reader – some just haven’t found the right books yet.)

So, here just a few thoughts on what we readers – no matter whether we are from Africa, Asia or any other part of the world - are hoping to find, hoping to experience each time we open a book.

We want to hear your voice – and your voice only! Please don't try to be someone else, don't try to impress us with fancy words, just write as you would talk to us. Give us the feeling that you are there, right in front of us, telling us your story. You have a unique voice, which will be so exciting for us to discover. So don’t hide it from us!

We want to be invited into your world – let us see, hear, feel and taste the world in which your story takes place. Take us on a tour, describe the sights and sounds of your world. Make it a reality for us.

We want to be part of the story – let us walk hand-in-hand with its characters. Let us feel their emotions, their joys and sorrows. Make us laugh, cry, shout with anger, bite our nails in frustration, jump with joy!

At times, we want to have our reality mirrored, meet someone just like us, someone we can relate to. At other times, we want to meet the unknown to escape our own world and to discover something new.

But what shall I write about, you might ask. It doesn’t really matter. Believe me. You can write about any topic, any genre. I will give you a few examples: Write a gripping mystery or adventure (as in John Hare’s Fearless Four); write realistic fiction that deals with real life issues (as in Anthony K. Johnson’s Bamboo Girl) or portrays and celebrates a part of everyday life (as in Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus); or create fantasy with magical creatures that blur the lines between reality and fantasy (as in Lauren St. John’s The White Giraffe); take tales from the past and give them a new spin – the sky is the limit of what you can write about and (young) readers will enjoy, as long as you make the stories come to life and remain true to yourself as our storyteller.

One last word of advice: please, don’t underestimate even the youngest among your readers. They are smart, very smart. They will know whether you are genuine or not, whether you will give them all they are looking for in a story (see the above) and whether you have put your whole heart into the writing of it. And trust me, they know that from the very first pages.

Good luck – and I am looking forward to reading and sharing your stories.

Best wishes,



A Word to Illustrators By Paul Zelinksy

Paul Zelinsky is a two-time Caldecott award winning writer and illustrator of children's books. His work includes The Wheels on the Bus and Rumplestiltskin.

Hello! My name is Paul Zelinksy here’s my take on illustrating for children.

Traditional components of visual art, such as composition, use of color, line and texture, handling of paint, and so on, are important but in picture books they are secondary compared to the pictures' role in conveying the physical and emotional content of the story being told. In book illustration, everything needs to be keyed in to this storytelling function.

Individual pictures have to look good, but in a picture book an equally important consideration is what is being done with the sequence of images. A large part of the effect of a picture book's storytelling comes from the way one image follows another, and the changes that happen when a page turns: change of scale, of focus, amount of activity or stillness; change of color, or by the same token, the lack of change. Picture books have rhythm and pacing the way a piece of music does. The ability to produce a meaningful and compelling experience by means of sequences of images is a different skill from creating a single meaningful and compelling image.

Pictures need to express the emotion of a scene, using all available tools: composition, use of color, line quality, as well as depicted emotions in the characters. Those depicted emotions include facial expression and body language. It is particularly important in a children's book that the characters show their feelings in a convincing way, so that the reader feels them. Artistic stylization, such as any sort of exaggeration, should not distract from this expressive function. Faces should be visible, comprehensible. Simplicity is usually a virtue. Drawings that appear to have a childlike style tend to have a wide range of appeal across cultures and ages. But if characters, especially human characters, are drawn at all realistically, it's important that the artist show the ability to draw human anatomy.

On the pages of a picture book, art and text combine to create one coherent design. Illustrations for an actual book need to be planned around the dimensions of the final book, taking into account the content and placement of text on every page. The layout of text and illustrations may be determined by the illustrator, if the publisher allows, or will be determined by the publisher’s own designers. But in either case the illustrator needs to be able to plan pictures that work as part of a page, rather than as stand-alone pieces of art.

An illustrator needs to prepare a dummy, a mock-up of a complete book, for showing to the publisher before proceeding with any of the finished art, and then should be prepared to make revisions based on the publisher’s suggestions.  Book-making tends to be a collaborative venture. Depending on the publisher, these suggestions may be only the entry point into a dialogue in which one party will convince the other as to the best solution, or they may be more hard-and-fast instructions to make changes. In any event, an illustrator does not start and finish a project in isolation, but should expect to receive feedback every step of the way.