Interview with Donald Grant, children’s book author and illustrator of the picture block
On the occasion of the fight for the rights of children, the Aid by Trade Foundation (ABTF) and its Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) initiative in collaboration with the prestigious American children’s book author Donald Grant publishes illustrations on child labor. The picture block is used as training material during CmiA cotton cultivation trainings in order to inform the people living in Sub-Saharan Africa about this important issue and to sensitize them. On Friday, the Foundation has invited its partners and local representatives of political and economic institutions to a workshop taking place in Zambia in order to discuss on the protection of children as well as on the newly created CmiA illustrations. In an interview, Grant reports on the project and his gained experiences on the ground.
Why did you choose to become an author for children’s books?
Travelling for me has been the best school of life I could imagine. It has given me the chance to observe and reflect about my own life and of those around me. On one of my travels that led me to India, I experienced one unforgettable moment: Walking the hard back streets of Delhi I noticed through an open doorway of a small workshop a young girl who seemed incredibly sad. She looked like a princess dressed as they do there. She looked up at me and I was able to exchange a fleeting glance of eye contact with her. She was working making carpets with other girls just like her, most likely through forced labor. I will never forget that moment which eventually brought me to create children’s books dealing with cultural issues, children’s rights, and lifestyles.
What is your biggest challenge working as an author?
The biggest challenge in producing children’s books on these issues are that potential buyers might feel over protective with their children. These realistic stories of life might seem to be negative to adults but I have found children to be extremely adaptable and understanding when the subject’s are correctly presented.
Child labor is a very complex and difficult theme to deal with — especially in a picture’s block. How did you tackle your task?
At first, I had to learn in theory what child labor means. AbTF strictly forbids all forms of exploitative child labor and adheres to the respective ILO conventions. However, what do these regulations mean in practice? I had to figure out for myself what the conventions forbid and what they allow. Therefore, I travelled to those areas in Sub Saharan Africa where Cotton made in Africa cotton is grown. During my trips, I accompanied the verifiers who go to the fields and verify if the CmiA farmers respect the CmiA exclusion and sustainability criteria. An integral part of the exclusion criteria is e.g. the ban on child labor. Additionally, I participated in workshops on child labor. Most important for me though was to get to meet the people firsthand the picture’s block address — the smallholder cotton farmers and their families. I made many sketches beforehand, during and after my trip when I was in the CmiA project regions but to be honest, I created my best drawings during the long journeys in the 4X4 while going from one place to another. These took me through some wonderfully beautiful African countryside. The images I gained along the way and in the villages helped and inspired me enormously.
How did the CmiA farmers and their families react to you and the theme you wanted to talk about with them — child labor?
At first, they appeared nervous to talk about this subject, especially with me, an European. However, when I explained with the support of the local CmiA teams that I wanted them to explain to me what child labor means to them and that I wanted to learn from them, I was able to gain their confidence. Laws concerning child labor are confusing at best and abstract to these illiterate smallholder farmers, but they do want to know what is considered acceptable or not. Nevertheless, when I asked them to explain to me what children should or shouldn’t do, they seemed to have a clear image about that. Their openness and willingness to help me was essential for my work.
You have travelled the world and have already published many books. What was the main challenge you had to face with this project?
The most difficult part of the project was to distinguish between what is “help”, “work” or “labor” on the family farm. This is not as easy as one might think. I wanted to create a realistic picture that interprets the requirements of the CmiA standard in day-to-day situations of an African farmer’s family. Additionally, I wanted to show them what their children could do — according to the international conventions. The farmers explained the fear that their children would become lazy if they had no work to do and would not be prepared for the future on the farm. Through the imagery created for the picture’s block, I want to explain to them that school education doesn’t mean that their children will not be part of the family farming learning process. I want to show them that educated children can even be a great asset to their parents, e.g. by reading instructions from training manuals, expiration dates on medicines and farming products, doing math calculations and accounting. Additionally, I had to design a picture block that is self-explanatory for those who cannot read, as there are many illiterate people living in the rural cotton growing areas of CmiA.
What has surprised or impressed you the most on your journey?
The strong and straight-forwarded women I met in the villages impressed me the most. In a male dominated region as this is, one woman came and said to me in private how much she appreciated a girl having an important role within the story. That having the girl go to school and help her illiterate parents calculate, understand and implement the training measures gave her hope for the future. This was wonderful feedback in which I felt a dept towards her to emphasize. Additionally, it was rewarding to have farmers see themselves and their stories in the pictures.
How would you describe the picture block?
The picture’s block, which was created for the CmiA families in the African cotton growing areas, shows an exemplary, realistic but simplified image of the daily life of African smallholder farmers and their families. The artwork I used is simpler than my usual style. Why? Because I wanted to focus on the message — what is allowed according to CmiA standard and what is child labor and thus forbidden within the CmiA system. Besides, I adapted it to the « Boîte à image » established style recognized and common in Sub Saharan Africa. CmiA already uses this practice to especially inform illiterate farmers about e.g. new agricultural training methods. For me, it is a very fruitful and inspiring CmiA project that I am pleased to be involved and to support it.
Donald Grant was born in 1954 in Brooklyn, New York. After his Art Studies at Pratt Institute in the United States, he spent six years traveling the world. His passion for travel lead him to France, where he finally settled thirty years ago. He has illustrated many books for young readers, in fields as diverse as literature, detective novels and fiction. He is also author of children’s books and worked with UNICEF and Amnesty International. His last project took him to Sub Saharan Africa where on behalf of the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) and its Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) initiative he has created a picture block on child labor issues that will be distributed in the cotton growing areas where the Foundation works.