"These are our children's books," said the helpful lady at Kalk Bay Books, "but I don't think there are many new South African ones."
She was absolutely right, which only confirmed my growing apprehension. I do my best to keep track of all South African children's books published in English. It is now September and I couldn't believe how few local books were on my list. So I went off to bookshops to do some detective work.
My arrival, notebook in hand, was regarded with suspicion at a branch of a certain nation-wide bookseller. "Do you mind if I look at your children's books?"
"I'm not sure. The manager isn't here. She's very fussy."
But I was allowed to look, though without any offer of assistance. There were masses of books on display, mostly teenage titles from overseas about vampires and fallen angels and the undead. Only a few South African titles and those mostly from long past years.
So I went to independent bookshops and received most courteous help at Clarke's Bookshop, at The Book Lounge and at Kalk Bay Books where almost every book is shelved "full frontal" with the cover clearly visible. Such a good idea. I did discover quite a few local junior titles that I had missed, but all from previous years.
My test of a good bookshop is to ask, "Please show me where you stock your South African children's books?" If they look at you blankly, walk out. Don't waste any more time. If they wave a limp wrist at a jumbled top (or even worse, bottom) shelf, ask what recent titles they recommend. For example, do they stock A Wish This Big by Ingrid Mennen & Katrin Coetzer, Just Sisi by Wendy Hartmann & Joan Rankin or The Ugly Duckling as retold by Sindiwe Magone? Or any youth novels by Lesley Beake, Jenny Robson, Peter Slingsby or Dianne Hofmeyr?
For annual comparison, during 2009 we published 42 children's books (35 fiction, seven non-fiction); and in 2010, 51 children's books (34 fiction, 17 non-fiction). So far, during the first eight months of 2011, I have noted nine fiction and four non-fiction - only 11. Of those, six are marketing tie-ins for the new animated Jock of the Bushveld film.
What on earth has been happening?
Ludicrous deadlines for submission to the educational department, that's what. Plus demands for …