Art teacher-turned-author Dianne Hofmeyr produced her first award-winning piece of writing when she was in standard four (grade two). The subject was chocolate and her reward was a "huge box of chocolates". "I thought, that's easy, I'll be a writer."
And so she is. She has since won awards for Boikie, You Better Believe It and A Red Kite in a Pale Sky. In the latter, she tackled the subject, very new to South Africa at the time, of living with HIV.
Her most recent books concern the adventures of a junior Indiana Jones called Oliver Strange, whose father, a herpetologist, studies the rarest of frog species all over the world, leading his son into one adventure after another – first in the Okavango, then in Madagascar and now, in the latest in the series, in the forests of Colombia.
What makes this former South African, born in the quiet backwater that is Gordon's Bay, tackle the topic of rare frogs?
"Because they are low on the food chain. If you lose frogs, the chain could be destroyed," says Hofmeyr, to whom environmental issues are very important, influenced as she has been by the writing of naturalist Gerald Durrell.
An enormous amount of research goes into her books and that, she says, "is fun". In pursuit of authenticity, she travels, and on her travels is frequently accompanied by an extraordinary scrapbook containing her drawings, notes and diagrams that help her to plot the complex events she weaves into her stories.
"When I'm tired," she says, "I play with Pritt stick and paper."
OLIVER STRANGE AND THE FOREST OF SECRETS by Dianne Hofmeyr (Tafelberg)
The ever-curious, if cautious, Oliver and his intrepid sidekick, Zinzi, are at it again. This time they are tracking not only the most poisonous frog on the planet but also a band of guerrillas who make a living producing cocaine and, in the process, wreaking havoc on the fragile environment of the Colombian forest. The guerrillas are also keen to lay their hands on the legendary gold of the Embera people and have no qualms about torturing and killing anyone they think might know where it is. As usual, Hofmeyr tells a fast-paced story in a page-turner filled with fascinating information and many scary events.
DOGTECTIVE: WILLIAM TRAVELS THE WORLD
DOGTECTIVE: WILLIAM AND THE POACHERS
by Elizabeth Wasserman, illustrated by Chris Venter (Tafelberg)
William, the remarkable talking dogtective, has been around for a while, it appears, speaking in his original language, Afrikaans. Now his adventures are available to English-speaking children who are prepared to suspend their disbelief and follow the remarkable animal and his human, Alex, on their adventures.
And very entertaining adventures they are, too. In William Travels the World, he and Alex set off for Istanbul, Venice, Paris, Amsterdam and London on a mission to return to their original owner the silver tulip bulbs stolen by the villainous Brumbum and recovered by William.
While following the unlikely pair on their travels and travails, young readers will learn a little about the countries through which they pass en route to their triumph over evil.
William and the Poachers tackles the very contemporary subject of rhino poaching. William and Alex are sent to stay with Alex's aunt Ada in Botswana, only to find themselves entangled with a band of poachers, one of whom is their old enemy Scabscratch, henchman of Brumbum. As always, William and Alex save the day (and, in this case, also the wounded rhino).
REFILWE: An African retelling of Rapunzel by Zukiswa Wanner
Illustrated by Tamsin Hinrichsen (Jacana)
In this, another in Jacana's delightful series of retold tales for the children of Africa, much-acclaimed novelist Zukiswa Wanner sets the Rapunzel story in the Kingdom of Lesotho, where, in return for satisfying the cravings of a pregnant woman with morogo from her garden, the witch demands that the longed-for baby be handed over to her. Refilwe is imprisoned in a mountain cave until she is discovered by Prince Tumi. In time-honoured fashion, after a series of misadventures, the young couple are united, marry and live happily ever after. Tamsin Hinrichsen's rich illustrations complement the story perfectly.
STRONGER THAN LION
GREEDY MAN, KIND ROCK
THE STRANGER AND HIS FLUTE
NOKULUNGA, MOTHER OF GOODNESS
BUHLE, THE CALF OF MANY COLOURS
THE WOMAN ON THE MOON
by Sindiwe Magona, illustrated by Nicole Blomkamp (David Philip)
New from David Philip is this delightful series of African folk tales retold by the writer extraordinary Sindiwe Magona and available in English, Setswana, Siswati, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Afrikaans. With their fun illustrations and not too many words on a page, the little books are perfect for beginner readers as well as for the read-to-me age group.
South African author Anita Pouroulis has won one of children's publishing's top awards. The former primary school teacher from Bedfordview in Johannesburg won the Best World Children's Book Award at the China Children's Book Fair in Shanghai in November for her picture book, Oh, What a Tangle! (reviewed in these pages in June 2013).
Four of the books reviewed here contain errors that could have been picked up by more careful proofreading. The worst offender is Oliver Strange and the Forest of Secrets, closely followed by both the Dogtective books. And, given that Refilwe runs to a mere 15 pages, the major error that crept in shows pure carelessness. I would have thought that greater care should be taken in producing books for young readers.