Q&A with children’s author Ken Wilson-Max
Nal'ibali column No 24 Term 3 2020
Thanks for chatting to us, Ken. You're a veteran author of children's books with more than 60 to your name. What inspired you to start writing for young readers?
I worked as a designer and art director for several years, so I was focused on illustrating, initially. I didn’t believe I would be able to write the stories as well as I could tell them, or to make commercially viable books out of my stories. Even today my inspiration is the same as it was then: tell it from the African perspective.
Though you now live in London, you were born in Zimbabwe. Are you still connected to any children's projects in, or drawing writing inspiration from, Southern Africa?
Yes, I try to be connected with children’s projects on the continent as much as possible. Some are publishing projects, but most are about focusing African creativity and broadcasting it to the world. I’ve run workshops in Ghana, Senegal and Zimbabwe for aspiring illustrators and artists. Recently I launched a newspaper for young people called 17Promises, part of a larger initiative to make the UN Sustainable Development goals more accessible.
Your books have been published in nine languages. Do you think publishers are becoming more open to offering a diversity of languages, even when it's not perceived as a primary market?
It depends on the publisher and the country whether languages are accepted. In SA there are quite a few official languages, so multilingual books are encouraged, expected even. Things should become more interesting in African countries where so many people speak more than one language, but African publishing infrastructure makes it hard or expensive to try multilingual editions, in my opinion.
Astro Girl tells a fun story, but also carries a lot of fantastic messages for young children, particularly girls. Let's start with the beautiful style of parenting it models. What did you set out to show with this story?
I wanted to do something to honour the women in my life: my mum, gran, aunties and family friends who raised me. I also wanted to make a strong statement about goals, dreams and gender stereotypes because I have daughter who I believe will achieve great things, should she choose to do so. I took one of the most male things I could think of — hero worship — and did my best to dismantle it.
One of my favourite things about Astro Girl is how it normalises supportive parenting — ways for us all to affirm young children's abilities and confidence. How can we build these messages into daily activities, just like the dad does in your book?
Listening to children is a great start. Adults can learn so much from having conversations with preschoolers. It's a process of using what you learn to encourage them to reach for as much as they can.
We are all worried about fake news and its devastating global affect. What do you think we need to do to develop confident, critical and careful readers?
Two things. We could encourage children and young people to be more curious about their environment, from the neighbourhood to the global community. Hopefully that will give them the tools to make good decisions as they grow up. Second, discussing the idea that people are more similar than different will help them to develop empathy and compassion.
Speaking of developing news consumers, you run some fantastic projects. Tell us about Chicken Newspaper for Children.
After seeing how excluded children are from the news, I wanted to see if they would respond to current affairs if it was presented like a picture book. These are the decisionmakers and voters of the future. Children really want to be informed about the world. Chicken is more than a publication, though, it is all about communities. The newspaper is supported by schools and local businesses through sponsorship. It took a lot of thought to pull Chicken Newspaper together, but it has been extremely rewarding. Chicken Newspaper gave rise to 17Promises, and both publications seem to be doing all right. They have been incorporated into Afronaut Press, the African (Zimbabwe) imprint of Alanna Max Books, which is my UK-based centre of operations. We are developing the online future for both publications, and I’m always hopeful of producing more print runs.
As a member of International board of Books for the Young (IBBY), which publishing issues do you feel most passionately about?
I joined IBBY with the sole purpose of connecting or reinforcing connections from the African chapters to the rest of the world. My main aim is to bring attention to the fact that the African publishing supply chain, if I can call it that, is not where it should be at the moment. At every stage there is something missing. My dream is to change that.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org