'A priceless gift': Jamela Series creator Niki Daly tells us why books and parenting go hand-in-hand

"Just by seeing a child playing imaginatively, thinking they are a superhero or fairy... I can easily turn that into some kind of story."
"Just by seeing a child playing imaginatively, thinking they are a superhero or fairy... I can easily turn that into some kind of story."

In 1980, South African children's book author and illustrator Niki Daly returned to SA after ten years of living and working in London and found that none of the books sold locally actually represented the lives of South African children. 

Determined to recreate the liveliness of his childhood growing up in a working-class family, Daly set out to produce "the vitality of working-class kids playing in the streets," and his 1985 storybook Not so fast Songololo became the first of what he calls "books for all our children." 

"When I came back to South Africa and looked at the books that were available then in the 80s there was very little representation of black lives, and because I come from a working-class background, I just understood and appreciated the resourcefulness of children who don't have everything," Daly told Parent24 in an interview about his life's work. 

Elaborating, Daly explained that he saw books as "useful to bridging the gap" created by Apartheid. "I also realised because political trouble was raw and apparent then that books could act as bridges to connect children of different backgrounds." 

Like many of his storybooks, Not so fast Songololo depicts life from a child's perspective, something Daly says, at 72, has never left him. 

"I remember sitting on a pavement yearning for certain things completely out of my reach, and that hasn't changed at all, those dreams and yearnings are still there as are the fears and joys. That entire make-up of what it is to be a child is still intact in me, and I think that's what makes my work relatable," he says. 

The groundbreaking Not so fast Songololo became the first of Daly's books to capture a global audience of both storybook lovers and critics alike, earning the author a US Parent's Choice Award. 

Since then, Daly's number of international awards and accolades have grown with the release of each book, including the New York Times Book Review's Best Illustrated Book of the Year, an International Board on Books for Young People Honors Award, a Parents' Choice Foundation Book Award, and a Children's Africana Book Award. 

He has also been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, often referred to as the "Nobel Prize for children's literature." 

Not a bad list of achievements since the story-teller considers himself an illustrator first, and author second. 

Also see: Why is humour in kids’ books important? Best selling author Andy Griffiths spills his secrets

'I steal with my eyes'

"I simply love drawing, and I feel like I just need to make pictures, I don't need to write," explained Daly, who credits his ability to "steal with [his] eyes" as one of the reasons for his success. 

"I have a highly developed visual memory... I steal with my eyes. Just by seeing a child playing imaginatively, thinking they are a superhero or fairy... I can easily turn that into some kind of story." 

It was this love of drawing and a short stint as a song-writer in London which Daly singles out as central to his beginnings as a children's book author in 1978. 

"In London, I was an unknown illustrator.....and so I realised that the only way I could get into children's publishing was to write and illustrate and then present that 'dummy book' to publishers.... and because I wrote lyrics, I sort of stepped off from that form of writing into doing children's text and that is why my writing is the more lyrical kind."

"If I read it aloud and it doesn't sound good in my ear then I know there's something wrong with it."

So what's Daly's idea of a good children's book? 

The 1963 children's picture book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. 

"My take on a perfect children's book? It has to be personal: Where the Wild Things Are. It was criticised at the time for being too scary for children," says Daly who believes children are capable of handling deep topics because they can "sense there's more to life than just the happily ever after ending." 

"We are now living in a time where there's an overprotection of children I feel - and it's a mistake." 

As a father himself, Daly says that parents would be well advised to see books as an extension of their parenting "not as something that you just give to the child and you don't have any connection with." 

The storyteller also shared a few tips for parents hoping to inspire a love of reading in their children, highly recommending that parents commit to a daily reading routine with their kids from very early on. 

"My nephew's little boy had this book experience, and he's such a bright, inquisitive child, and I could see the way it was developing. He's able to really sit quietly and focus, the difference that's there is so visible. When they're given a book, it's like magic." 

Referring to it as "a priceless gift," Daly urges parents to put aside the time to read to their child every day. 

"When you come home, take off your shoes, lie down with your child and a book, and leave behind the clutter and noise of your busy life. Parents should know that when they're doing this that they are giving a priceless gift to their child." 

So what are his secrets to reading success? Daly shared a number of gems with us, which parents might find do just as well as parenting tips. 

Find them here: How to make reading easier for children: 8 tips by award-winning writer and illustrator Niki Daly

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