Mariska Araba Taylor-Darko is a Ghanaian poet and writer of several children’s and young adult books. Her book, ‘The Iced Water Seller’, tells the story of a teenage girl’s determination and perseverance in the face of extreme hardship and how she emerged victorious. ‘The Iced Water Seller’ has made tremendous impact in the lives of teenagers by inspiring them to rise above the difficulties life sometimes have to offer. Muna Kalati seized the opportunity to interview her about her life, the experiences and challenges she has faced as a writer, her source of inspiration and vision for the development of children’s book industry in Ghana.
Muna Kalati [MK]: What were the first children’s books you read? Were they African? Any childhood authors you remember?
Mariska Araba Taylor-Darko [MATD]: The first children’s books I read were British books, Lady Bird books, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Adventures of Tintin, Enid Blyton etc. Unfortunately, I grew up in the UK and at that time there were no African children’s story books there. Not even ones with black children in them. Even when we relocated to Ghana in the 1960’s the books available were British or American.
MK: What did these reading practices teach you as a child?
MATD: Reading took me to another world. I could visualize myself in the stories and always looked forward to the ending which would of course be exciting. In those days we did not have children’s stories that ended badly for the main character except when there was a battle between good and evil and good always won the day. Reading is and always will be a form of escape from reality. I also found out that this love of reading aided me in later life when I had to read long documents and reports.
MK: Could you give us an overview of your career? Why did you become interested in the world of children’s books? Is it a choice or a stroke of fate?
MATD: I started my career as a legal secretary so reading was a normal process. Reading, punctuation, spelling and grammar were very important.
When I became involved in the Ghana Association of Writers, I realized that there was a great shortage of books for the younger reader. Most of them were textbooks or adult books. There was not much of a selection for young teens. All this was learnt through interacting with booksellers, children and parents at various book fairs held in Ghana. You see a huge collection of imported books and even then, they did not import books that culturally and socially represented the young black child. I also realized that the market was saturated with imported second hand books written for the western child. Book donations that were sent to our Association and other organizations were geared towards the European child. The high cost of production in Ghana also increases the unit cost of the books sold here and so the parents gravitate towards the cheaper foreign books. My desire was to write stories they could identify with and also of a size that could be read quickly and at a cost that would be affordable. I would therefore say shifting from writing books for grown-ups to writing for young teens and children was a choice. A choice I have not regretted.
MK: What books are on your nightstand? Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book?
MATD: At the moment I am reading ‘The Kaya Girl’, by Mamle Wolo, ‘The Shrinking Bowl’ by G.A Agambila and ‘Wife of the Gods’ by Kwei Quartey. These are actually books I have read before but I need to go back and savour some chapters, so I keep them for bedtime reading.
When I was about 12 years old, I used to hide under the bedcovers and read with a torch light. Most of the time they were books that I borrowed from friends at school or from my mum’s bookshelf. I got into trouble not for reading but using the torchlight and then not being able to get up early for school.
MK: What’s the last great book you read, and what book should everyone read before age 21?
The last great book I read was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and also “Starbook” by Ben Okri. Actually, there are so many great ones that I have downloaded onto my Kindle. I also download children’s books because it is good to learn from other seasoned authors of children’s books.
Everyone should read, ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill and ‘The Richest Man in Babylon’ by George Samuel Clason before they are 21. Because of the changing world that we are in, the young should know that nothing is impossible if you put your mind and determination to it. Personal financial management is not taught in schools and these books would help open the eyes of the young on how to save, invest and earn honest money. One should widen one’s reading selection and not stick to one type of genre. There are also many great children’s books out there.
MK: What, in your opinion, is the main task of children’s literature? Should it entertain, teach, educate, enlighten, create role models, liberate…
MATD: The main task of children’s literature should first of all be entertaining because children have so many gadgets that distract their attention. If the book is boring, they would put it down. If it entertains then there can be subtle messages to educate and teach them right from wrong without being condescending because children are bright and do not want a book full of preaching. Give them the option to decide if the villain was right or wrong. It should make them feel safe when reading and also generate conversation between their peers and them.
MK: How many children’s books have you published to date? Could you name them? Would you like Muna Kalati to do some analysis on these books?
MATD: My books range from primary to secondary level.
1. “The Deer Hunt” is a book that took one of my poems written from the eyes of a child. I was full of descriptions that a child sees at a festival where a deer has to be caught for good luck for the seasons to come ahead. At the same time the book explains the origin of the festival and the history of the Deer Hunt Festival held in Ghana.
2. I wrote a short story for a folktale anthology “Story Story Story Come” titled “The Proud Peacock,” which shows how pride can cause people to lose friends.
3. “The Iced Water Seller ” which you have read is for young teens. It follows the life of a young girl, Sisi Yaa who sells iced water in the streets and how she is reunited with her real mother.
4. “King Goat Aponkye” which is a fully illustrated book for the very young ones with a work book and question and answer section inserted. It tells a story of domestic and wild animals who face challenges and end up working together for peace. The animals in the book have both English and Twi (Ashanti) names. I am working on getting the same story translated to have Ga and Ewe names to cover more regions in Ghana. It was written conjunction with children of Ghanaian parentage living in the diaspora.
5. I am at present working on a children’s poem titled “I Love Ghana” which is being fully illustrated – Every stanza has its own illustrations with a young girl as the main character. The poem, which is from ‘The Deer Hunt’ is my next fully illustrated children’s poetry book. I have about three other projects waiting for my attention. I would definitely be honoured to have Muna Kalati analyze my books.
MK: Recently, children’s literature has become increasingly free from various prohibitions and taboos. The authors are not afraid of complex topics such as death, aggression, bullying, depression, feminism, racial problems… But do children need it? And where to find the balance between a happy childhood full of miracles and adventures, and the real world full of adult problems?
MATD: A lot of children do not have people they can speak to. There are some parents who have no idea of the issues the young children go through and if a book is beautifully written to tackle the grief after a loss of a parent or grandparent, the child would derive some comfort knowing that if the main character could go through these troubles, they would be ok. Girls need more books that focus on puberty, menstruation, relationships, and the importance of financial independence. These issues should be handled carefully to educate, entertain, and let them know that it is alright to go through certain changes in their lives. We cannot shelter them from the real world so authors should be like second guardians to equip them with the right information.
MK: In Africa, children’s literature is located on the periphery and seen as a marginal genre compared to classical literature. What do you think of that?
MATD: It is terrible but it means that authors have a lot of work to do by holding speaking engagements in schools, liaising with teachers and also by writing quality books. We cannot change hundreds of years of bias but little drops of water make a mighty ocean. Our universities should offer creative writing as a diploma or degree course with children’s literature as one of the subjects. This would bring respect to the genre.
MK: What is your vision for the future of children’s literature in your country?
MATD: I would like to see more books that are culturally relevant to children, with more children having access to literature instead of only handling text books during school and ending there. The old system of reading clubs should be revived in the schools. There should be more libraries and more support from the government to encourage writers of children’s books. We have to make our nation a reading nation and it starts from pre-school levels. There should also be tax concessions on children’s books and literature.
MK: What moves you most in a work of literature?
MATD: Books that touch on the emotion felt by loss, joy, pain and are very descriptive are first for me. The thrill of reading and experiencing the climax of the story cannot be described.
MK: Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
MATD: At the moment no book has actually had that effect of coming between me and another person or brought us closer but when I read other writers’ books about the experiences and hurdles they overcame, I feel empathy towards them and it makes it easier to strike up a conversation with them when we happen to meet.
MK: Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
MATD: I wish more authors would write about happiness, family love, growing up with a single parent, bullying and things that affect the growing child.
MK: In an illustrated book, how central is the art to its success or failure, and what’s the relationship between art and text in your mind?
MATD: Art in an illustrated book is very important. It should convey the message without you having to read the words. There are some children who are slow learners and just by looking at the pictures would give them an idea of what the story is about. The text should flow gently with strokes of the artist. A badly illustrated book where the text sits on a different page confuses a child so the aesthetics of the page should be carefully looked at. They say that gentle on the eyes is closer to the heart.
MK: What role did your parents/family play in developing your interest for writing?
MATD: My mother was my mentor. She was an actress and was always reading scripts. She also spent a lot on books, was always reading and going to libraries or to exhibitions and museums. She took up photography and so the creativity was sort of inborn. She just loved reading and so it was imprinted in me as well. Thanks Mum *
MK: In your book, ‘The Iced Water Seller’; we noticed that the main character’s name, Araba, is also your middle name. Is there a connection between the character and you? Is Sisi Yaa someone you knew or is her story your own?
MATD: I couldn’t think of any other name but Araba. It also had to fit in with the region of
Ghana that she came from. If I had used a name from the Northern part of Ghana or Greater Accra Region then the story would have been different. I think people gravitate towards their comfort zone. The story is fictional and has no bearing on my life. Sisi Yaa was a name I liked and I actually don’t know anyone by that name. I knew a corn seller called Auntie Sisi and I have some cousins called Yaa so I just put them together. I am currently struggling to get a name for my young girl in the book “I Love Ghana” and it has to be a Ghanaian name. *
MK: What process do you adopt/follow when developing the profiles of your characters and plot?
First of all, when I start thinking of a story, and it comes sometimes in dreams, I write down notes and visualize how I would like the main character to be, that is; her looks, voice, attitude, etc. Then I look at the way the character’s family or friends would react to her or him.
MATD: How do you create boundaries between fiction and reality?
When writing fiction, you definitely have an element of reality in the story, and I try to be careful or avoid describing a person or action that can be identified to a real person. Fiction does allow you to come up with things that would seem impossible in real life and that is the beauty of it…. Using your imagination to create captivating scenes!
MATD: Initially, it started slowly and since I am self-published, I had to do all the marketing and sales. Because of the embargo on selling books to the government schools directly, the opportunity to make sales in that direction fizzled out. It is after the third reprint that I have had bulk orders because those who have read the book recommend it to their children and friends. The title was catchy and the visuals on the cover drew people’s interest to it. Quite a few young and older customers have said that the story reminded them of their life and what they went through to get to where they are now. The younger readers are waiting for part two and a group of young teens formed a reading club with my book as their first club book. They even wrote individual chapters of the story and how they would like it to be.
MK: What is your best experience/feedback from readers as an author?
MATD: Encouragement from readers asking for a sequel of The Iced Water Seller has been the feedback received. My best experiences were when a school ordered four hundred copies and when a parent said she had gotten her daughter to form a weekend reading club and that my book was going to be the first book chosen.
MK: What is the number of copies sold so far? On what topic would be your next book?
MATD: About three reprints of 500 copies each plus the initial 500. I would say 2000. I will be writing a part two of The Iced Water Seller and then I have the children’s poetry book and others planned.
MK: What do you expect to achieve through your writings? What message do you have for young girls and women who would like to have a career in the book industry?
MATD: My writing sets to entertain, educate and invite younger readers into the reading fraternity. All I would say to the young girls and women is that they should write from the heart, do not accept defeat, do not listen to negative people and do a lot of research on the internet. Networking with other writers at social events will give you a lot of information regarding editors, publishers, printers, illustrators etc. Never fear to ask questions and attend as many workshops as you can. There are a lot of free courses on the internet. *
MK: Any last words? MATD: I just want to say that I am honoured to be selected to be in the company of such esteemed and seasoned authors previously interviewed by your organization. I wish every parent would endeavour to make reading a part of their lives and that of their children.