African Picture Book Author Spotlight: Kwame Nyong’o

Meet Kenyan children’s book author and illustrator, Kwame Nyong’o!

I first learned about Kwame’s work on Instagram when I saw a collage of the front cover of one of his books. The illustration depicted a young boy reaching for one of my favorite snacks, maandazi. I clicked his Instagram profile name so fast I nearly dropped my phone!

Kwame is not only a passionate and talented illustrator but also a storyteller. Driven by the desire to provide young Kenyan children the opportunity to read books high-quality books that authentically reflects their experiences, he centers Kenyan culture and cuisines within fun stories that any child would enjoy.

During a time when the majority of books about African identities and cultures are written by non-Africans, Kwame’s series represents an exciting wave of African authors telling African stories.

I asked Kwame to share his story. He discusses his writing, his advice to new children’s book authors, and his exciting new projects.

For some background, tell us a bit about yourself. Where you are from and what you do?

I live in Nairobi and was raised both here in Kenya, my father’s country, and in the US where my mom hails from. I was interested in drawing from a young age and chose the arts as a career. I now do illustration, animation, fine art, some film work as well as music.

When did you first become interested in writing for children and did you always know you wanted to write African heritage books?

As a young child growing up in the US, I was especially drawn to books from Africa, as they stirred my imagination of the place I would one day go to when I was a bit older. Books such as ‘Take Me Home,’ ‘Anansi the Spider,’ and ‘Why Mosquitoes Buzz in Peoples Ears.’ As I began a career as an artist, I felt why not contribute to more kids books based on African stories. So yes, I’ve kind of always been keen on telling African stories.

Your book showcases Kenyan culture through food (githeri, ugali and Sukuma wiki, and a favourite of mine, maandazi), what made you decide to use food as one of the themes in your books? Also, what is your favourite Kenyan dish?

Well I thought to use food as a medium of cultural exchange as everyone can relate to food. One of my books main purposes is to show the world a more positive and realistic impression of Kenya, one that I experienced growing up here. Kenya has a wealth of traditional cuisines that are so interesting and tasty, I thought why not use them as a theme for the books. My favourite Kenyan dish? That’s a tough one! But I must say its my Grandma’s ugali and sukuma wiki! Hits the spot every time!

You published your book in while based in Kenya. Do you think there are any unique challenges to publishing and marketing a book while based on the continent?

Well yes, book reading culture it seems is diminishing all over the world, and avenues for selling books decreasing. I guess I’ve been lucky in that my books have been met with a lot of enthusiasm and I have developed great working relationships with some

Did you have any fears or self-doubts when writing an African heritage children’s book? What were they and how did you overcome them?

Not really. In fact, I felt like it was a great opportunity because there was a gap in the market. Not that many African children’s storybooks created by African authors, so what not go for it and offer something children/people/parents would most likely be looking for.

What advice do you have for authors writing African heritage children’s books?

Learn the foundations of good storytelling first, don’t assume just because the story is done by an African that that makes it legit. Then looks for interesting stories to tell. Contrary to many assumptions writing for children is quite challenging because you must tell a compelling story in fewer words, and a more selective choice of words that are more child friendly.

What is your favourite African heritage children’s book?

Take Me Home” about a kid who helps his dad fix their family business matatu (Kenyan minibus). Can’t find it anywhere though nowadays, if you find it, please, please, let me know! I love that book. ((We were able to find a link to the book but it is unfortunately not being printed)).

Any advice on how people can encourage children to read more diverse books?

I find kids, especially younger ones, are super curious and will read anything put in front of them. They tend to go for the more Western/pop culture books simply because there is way more of them and they dominate the media. I think the onus is on us producers to keep making more and more African products to give our children more choice.

What are you working on next? Are there any other African heritage children’s books that you have written?

Yes, I have new book i’m working on, the next of 3 more in this series. Eventually it will be a 6 part series with interconnected storylines. I have also created some African heritage short animated films such as ‘The Legend of Ngong Hills’ which can be seen on YouTube.

Three Fun Facts

  • I have three kids, 6,3 and 1, keeping me one toes full-time :)

  • I drove from Kenya to South Africa and back with my friends for the 2010 World Cup.

  • My favourite American food is lasagna.

Books by Kwame Nyong’o