Véronique Tadjo draws on myths and tales to tell highly colourful stories. This Franco-Ivoirian, who came to children’s literature « by chance », has developed her own particular style.
How long have you been working on children’s books?
For about eight years. I have written six books in total, five of which are illustrated books, and one a collection of tales and short stories with black and white illustrations.
How did you come to write books for children?
Completely by chance. I spoke to a publisher at a book fair who complained about the lack of literature for African children. That triggered something in me. First of all, I wrote a collection of tales and short stories, La Chanson de la vie. My first book, Le Seigneur de la danse, was written in England. I was feeling terribly homesick. I had just spent two years in Senoufo country, in the north of Cte d’Ivoire, so I made my first book a homage to masks.
You are greatly inspired by tales.
I draw from our cultural heritage: mythical characters, such as Mamy Wata, or the mask, or traditional tales which I rewrite and adapt for children today. Grand-mre Nanan is a homage to grandmothers, who are also the bearers of our traditions.
You also do the illustrations.
Yes, and it’s a great pleasure, a complete freedom to conceive of the book from beginning to end. It also happened by chance. I am not an example of a good artist. I don’t draw classically. I began drawing just like that, and as people liked it, I carried on. But, I must add that my mother was a painter and sculptor.
Each book has a completely distinct identity.
I find it terrible for artists to repeat themselves. It also depends on the subject. Grand-mère Nanan, was about my own grandmother. I couldn’t see myself drawing her. I did have some photos, however, that I wanted to use. So, I had to think how to work these photos into the imaginary realm and drawings? It was, in a way, the subject which imposed my method. For Le Seigneur de la danse, I took all my inspiration from Senoufo culture, adding colour and the scenes.
How have your books been received in Africa?
Quite well in general. Cte d’Ivoire has distinguished itself with its advances: a reading habit is beginning to emerge. In the supermarkets in Abidjan, you can find children’s books, which are no longer confined to a few bookshops. People are beginning to get into the habit of buying a book for their children. There are also more and more titles, more and more authors and illustrators who export their works outside Cte d’Ivoire.
Are there more and more authors who are interested in young people, more young authors?
I think people are beginning to understand the importance of children’s books. People always say that Africans don’t read, but if you don’t teach children to like reading, to like books, to have a pleasurable relation with books right from their most tender age, they associate books with school. It will never be a pleasure for them. In that case, why would they buy books once they are older? Books are also very important for a child’s emotional, intellectual and cultural development. There are generations who had only imported books. What do those children think? That their culture is worthless!
What feedback have you had from children?
Children love being told stories, and they love making them up themselves. They are highly sensitive to poetry. Writing for children is sometimes far more pleasurable than writing for adults. It involves another approach, another way of saying things.
It is easy to think that children’s literature is a less important literary genre than « serious » adult literature.
Absolutely. What is more, when you are a woman and you decide to write for children, people think that it’s natural, normal. A lot of people see children’s literature as a sub-literature. They think that it is easy to write for children. But you very quickly realize that good children’s literature is very demanding. It’s the same with literature in general: there is good and bad fiction. A good children’s book is one which lasts.
You also run workshops.
Yes, workshops on writing and illustrating children’s books. The objective is to go to places interested in this kind of workshop, where this literature is almost nonexistent. The idea is to get young illustrators and writers working, 12 to 15 of them in general. There are sometimes more confirmed writers, but who have never written books for young people. There are also sometimes young writers. They sometimes discover a whole aspect of their culture, because we have to sift majorly through cultural heritage and the problems of children today to find the themes which might interest them. Workshops have thus been held in Haiti, Rwanda, Benin, Mauritius, Chad, Mali, etc.
Even though there are few children’s books in Africa, in the West there are a whole range of books on Africa written by Westerners.
Yes, they can also be found in Africa. But they convey another vision of Africa. Some are very good, but they are full of good intentions. They give themselves away through details, which are not authentic. The stories often revolve around animals, or nature. The real problems are not tackled, those of contemporary Africa.
What projects do you have for your next books?
I have two. In the first, I am going to try to tackle a more urban, contemporary theme. The other is an anthology of poems for young people, an advance in African poetry, the history of Africa told through poems.
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