She was eight years old when she fell head over heels in love. Stepping into a little-known library at her primary school in Lenasia, Johannesburg, she was spellbound by what she saw: row after row of books, their spines tightly pressed together, the words on the pages almost jumping out and yelling, “Read me! Read me!”
Mapule Mohulatsi picked out one book and was soon engrossed in the story of The Frog Prince – and she hasn’t stopped reading since.
Mapule, who’s now studying towards her master’s in African literature, has devoured book after book by many a writer since that day in the school library: Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf, Zakes Mda.
Now the 24-year-old Wits University student could soon find her own book on library shelves after writing a novel little black girls can identify with.
Mizz President is her tongue-in-cheek entry into the literary world. The book, illustrated by Mary-An Hampton, tells the story of Lerato, a young girl who runs the country for a day after the president and his cabinet fall ill.
Lerato hops on her giant bird friend Hagar and flies to parliament to take over from the men. She makes significant changes to the way the country is run and the book – finalised while the country was experiencing a transition of leadership from Jacob Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa – offers commentary on current political issues.
Mapule hopes children will be inspired by the story and see that anything is possible, no matter who you are.
They didn’t want to make the book political satire, Mapule tells us when we meet her at Bridge Books in Maboneng, Johannesburg.
“We wanted to address a situation that children are aware of but might not fully understand,” she says.
“We need to speak of these things with kids without taking sides and without making an overly determined political statement.”
The book that’s causing quite a buzz nearly didn’t see the light of day, Mapule shares.
“We tested it out on a few people,” she recalls. “Some said it was too strong and others asked if we were sure we wanted to do this. We almost didn’t publish it, but then we woke up one day and decided to give it a try. It took a lot of rewriting and a lot of changing of illustrations but here it is.”
Mapule is no stranger to the publishing world and has published short stories in print and online.
Mizz President, however, is her first foray into book publishing and the first time she’s written for a much younger audience.
The author says a children’s book wasn’t something she’d given any thought to – until her publisher, CA Davids, reached out to her.
“She sent me a direct message on Twitter at the end of 2016. She said she’d been visiting my blog and needed someone to write a children’s book.
Another writer had ditched her. She said she trusted me and I should send her something if I was interested.”
Inspired by the children she one day plans to have, Mapule gave the proposal some thought and soon the idea for Mizz President was born.
“I wanted to write a book my [ future] children are going to read. Literacy standards aren’t good in South Africa, especially among black children, so that became another reason to write the book – to encourage them to read,” Mapule says.
She used every moment in between studying and working as an archivist for the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation to write.
Mapule heaps praise on her publisher for helping her cater to a younger market while still retaining her voice.
“She told me I don’t have to stop writing prose or stop being interested in the things I’m interested in, but I should learn to translate them for children. It took a lot of reading other children’s books and imagining the way I wanted mine to sound.”
Her publisher couldn’t be more pleased with the final product.
“I was looking to publish illustrated children’s books that go against the grain,” she says.
“They needed to be inclusive and reflect every South African child but I also wanted to publish books that were unusual.
“When Mapule came back with Mizz President – which felt timely and a bit subversive – I felt confident it was a story I wanted to publish.
“And Mary-An Hampton’s beautiful illustrations and artistic vision brought it all together.”
Mapule was the perfect person to bring Lerato to life, she adds.
“She’s inspiring. She’s a writer, a reader, a master’s student, works part-time and most importantly, she loves literature.”
Mapule grew up in Soweto’s Mofolo Central township – the only daughter and the youngest of Maria and Solomon’s three children. Long before she set foot in the Zodiac Primary School library that sparked her love of reading, she was exposed to a culture of reading by her mother.
Her mom read anything she could lay her hands on, Mapule says. She dedicated Mizz President to Maria, who passed away in 2015 after a battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Losing my mother was one of the most painful things but it also became a source of upliftment.
My mother isn’t the subject of everything I write, but she’s definitely my inspiration.
“I’ll probably think of my mother every day of my life, and that will change how I read and write about women.”
She plans to write many more books, but she’s concerned about the declining reading trends of the emerging generation.
Referencing the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study released last year, Mapule says she’s alarmed that almost 80% of South African Grade 4 pupils can’t read with comprehension.
“It’s shattering. I grew up in a world where reading was normal and going to the library wasn’t unusual. How do we deal with the degeneration and degradation and take responsibility for it?”
She hopes stocking libraries with books that resonate with children and the issues they face will interest them and improve literacy rates.
Her publisher agrees. “Mapule is very clear about what children’s books can achieve. I’d been following her progress and reading her articles and she struck me as someone who’s quite singular in the way she perceives the world. She’s an original thinker and quite fearless. I love that about her.”
They can’t be prouder of each other – and Mapule now hopes Mizz President will be just her first step in helping to pave the way for a reading nation.