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Where are all the stories?

Do you often hear people say they are writing or creating literature for children? Do the stories end up in books and in the hands of children? Where do all the stories we write for African children go to? Bontle Senne examines this topical issue.

Every few weeks, I meet someone who tells me they want to be a writer. Quite often they say they want to write for children or have started writing to give their children something more fun to read. They work in the evenings, after long days behind desks and putting little ones to bed. They tell me they have been working on it for six months or six years. All of them want to know how to get published. Many of them imagine it will be much more glamorous and profitable than it’s really likely. Quite a few of them have multiple books they have abandoned, half or a quarter way because they could not find inspiration or had ran out of ideas. I must have met dozens of people with this story in the last five years or so. There must be thousands of these hopeful storytellers across Africa but where do all their stories go? Very few of them are ever published by a traditional trade publisher. To be fair, there are very few strictly trade or children’s book publishers on our continent to begin with.

Writing textbooks or other educational materials would certainly be a more sensible and reliable source of income for those who wish to write professionally for children. We have not begun to fully mine the potential of technology to unleash our stories into the world. Why haven’t we? I could point to the many institutional roadblocks and structural inequalities of the publishing world. I could lament our odd preference for work from beyond our own shores.

Today, I’d like to talk about fear. This is the one thing that all those who have told me they want to be writers have in common. They are afraid they can’t finish writing their book or it won’t be good enough if they do, afraid of the inevitable rejection letters or their book won’t sell. I am not immune to these fears. For years, my particular brand of fear was that people would think that I couldn’t really write if I chose to write solely for children. My fear fuelled my excuses for not doing the only thing that would actually make me a ‘real’ writer: writing. I have a theory that this is why after many years as Africa’s only Pan-African children’s literature prize; Golden Baobab only received 180 story submissions for the 2013 prize. That is deeply depressing, especially since we have no shortage of writers; just a shortage of opportunities.

The Golden Baobab Prize and its writing and illustration workshops, represent one of the few, reasonably accessible opportunities to become a real writer. The stories submitted are written by Africans and for African children, in settings that are relatable, with characters not so unlike the children themselves. So why aren’t there more entries? Where do all our stories go? They go nowhere and we are going nowhere as long as this is the case. Stories can be as powerful as bullets. They can shift perspectives and ignite passions. They can keep our history and heritage alive. They can change the future for one child and a whole family.

The Golden Baobab Prize.

Bontle Senne
Book blogger and literary advocate


 

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