Fantasy children’s book set in the Drakensberg

2010-04-07 00:00

BEING launched this morning in the Tatham Art Gallery is a new children’s book written and illustrated by well-known Pietermaritzburg resident Else Schreiner. After years of social and political activism, Schreiner might have been expected to rest on her laurels, but that is not her style and the result is Lesothosaurus and the Ancestors’ Bones.

“It happened by accident,” says Schreiner, who has never written a children’s book before. In 2000, Time Stretching Fear, her account of her daughter Jenny’s detention and trial, was published, but that was a very different tale. However, there is a link. In 1995, when Jenny Schreiner was in Parliament, she went to Canada for a conference, and asked her parents to go to Cape Town to babysit their then four-year-old grandson, Niki.

Stuck in traffic jam in De Waal Drive on a hot day, Niki was getting fractious and Schreiner’s husband, the late Professor Deneys Schreiner, asked her to tell him a story. “The story of a small dinosaur and an octopus ­arrived from nowhere, and when we got home, Niki said: ‘Tell me again’. And when Jenny came back, Niki asked me to write it down so that his mother could also tell it.”

And over the next 14 years, the story evolved, with her three youngest grandchildren being given a new chapter each year. “It never entered my head to publish,” says Schreiner. “But then one of my friends said I should. After a year she gave it back to me and said she hadn’t had any luck with it. And then Shuters approached me and said they had heard I had ­written a children’s story.”

The book tells the story of Lesothosaurus — Les for short — who comes back to earth in a time warp after the ancestors hear that someone is digging up their bones. By mistake, he lands on the sea shore, hence the ­octopus, and has to travel to the Drakensberg to see what is happening to the bones. On the way he meets various creatures, including the three young humans who are Schreiner’s grandsons and who, once he starts to tell his story, realise they have heard some of it before. And once Les gets to the Drakensberg, he meets dragons. Here, Schreiner’s imagination can run riot.

“One of the things that was so much fun was inventing the dragons,” says Schreiner. Although, in the book, the illustrations are in black and white for reasons of cost, the originals are vividly coloured. And, as she explains, noone can say that dragons don’t look like that.

I ask whether she has always painted. “When I was at school, I thought I was quite a good artist, and after matric, I showed a drawing I had done of the cooling towers in Johannesburg to someone whose opinion I respected. I thought they were rather good. His comment was, “very neat”. So I stopped painting.” Although she still did some privately. And, she says, the illustrations for Lesothosaurus kept her sane when her husband was very ill and life was stressful. They offered an escape from reality into the world of the imagination. And that is the world of her book.

• Lesothosaurus and the Ancestors’ Bones by Else Schreiner is published by Shuter & Shooter. This morning’s launch is at 9.30 am for 10 am. Inquiries: Victoria Paine at 033 846 8700.

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