‘Thulani loved to bask in the sun all day’, reads the first sentence of a newly-launched children’s book with a vibrantly sunny cover… Unfortunately, Thulani’s slothful habit almost leads to his downfall, as young readers will discover when they read The Gift of the Sun by Dianne Stewart, with illustrations by Jude Daly of Kleinmond.

Children’s book author and illustrator Jude Daly in her home studio in Kleinmond.

First published in the UK and South Africa in 1996, the book, which has been out of print for some time, has just been re-released by its new publishers, Jacana. And what a treat it will be for a whole new generation of children.

When Jude Daly was a child she loved folktales and took to heart the subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle, life lessons embedded in them. Psychologically, it was probably a case of ‘a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down’, a painless way in which values and patterns of behaviour could be passed on from one generation to another.

As she grew into adulthood and had children of her own, her love of fables and folklore increased and when, at the age of about 40, she began to write and illustrate children’s books, she found it fascinating to explore the many layers of meaning in these traditional stories from many different cultures. “Some of them are quite profound,” she says. “They highlight universal truths and are able to deal with death and the darker side of life in ways that children are able to handle.”

Which was why she jumped at the chance to illustrate The Gift of the Sun, which had all the hallmarks of a cautionary tale set in rural South Africa. Her detailed depiction of the hapless Thulani’s determined efforts to do as little work as possible is presented with a delicate sprightliness, underlining the moral’s positive spin. The quality of her illustrations won her the sought-after Katrien Harries award for children’s book illustrations in 1997 and the book was translated into Afrikaans and isiXhosa in this country.

Since the first children’s book she illustrated in 1993 (The Dove), she has worked on around 25 publications, either as an illustrator only, or as a writer/illustrator, or once, as a writer only. If, in the context of being a children’s book author/illustrator, Jude Daly’s last name sounds familiar, it is probably because she is married to Niki Daly who has made a name for himself in the same field. They may share a surname but it would be difficult to find two people whose personalities are more disparate, or whose styles of writing and drawing are less alike.

“Niki can get inside a child’s head and the artwork he produces is so wildly and ridiculously anarchic that it speaks directly to a child’s sometimes wonky perspective of the world,” confesses Jude with a laugh. “I love children, but I’m not sure I have as close an affinity with them as he does. My approach is completely different. I work slowly and carefully; in fact, it sometimes feels as if my figures are very still – it’s as if they are on a stage miming the story – and much more stylised, I suppose. Perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to folk stories; they’re also a bit stylised.”

Jude has worked with two writers in particular, on several occasions: Di Stewart, who wrote The Gift of the Sun and who continues to write books for children and young people in KwaZulu Natal, and Dianne Hofmeyr, with whom she has collaborated on four books, including Do the whales still sing?. However, in more recent times, most of her publications have been both written and illustrated by her; the latest, Joseph’s Cradle was launched just a month ago in the UK. Many of her books which have been published overseas have been translated into a variety of languages and she has won several international awards for them.

She finds that her books, in terms of both the subject matter and style of illustration, resonate particularly well with foreign readers. Many of the stories, including the latest one, are set in South Africa, but some are derived from traditional folk tales from cultures very different from our own. “Somehow, I don’t see South African children identifying very strongly with a Cinderella story set in Ireland, or one based on Taoist folk lore,” she laughs, “whereas most of Niki’s stories, for example, are very distinctively South African, from every point of view: the story line, the characters and the robust, brightly-coloured illustrations.”

The medium she uses for her illustrations largely comprises acrylic washes, applied after she has first created pencil sketches. “I’m very old school,” she muses. “I do everything myself by hand, from stretching the paper, to the sketches, to the application of colour – no digital gadgetry for me – but it does mean that I tend to spend a long time on each book.” That careful, time-consuming approach is reflected in the delicate, almost old-fashioned look to her illustrations, which is very much in keeping with her subject matter, harking back to a slower, more traditional way of life.

Jude is pleased that The Gift of the Sun is being given a new lease on life. Thulani and his long-suffering wife, Dora are endearing characters, as are the cows and goats and chickens that populate their world – and then there are the giant, sunny sunflowers to cheer small readers, even if they’re having a bad day. It is the ideal book for parents to read to their children; they will enjoy the subtle humour underlying the tale.

The Gift of the Sun is available from most good bookstores, or from the publishers, Jacana.

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