Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Giraffes Galore… the journey of a book – Dianne Hofmeyr.

Excuse the light-heartedness. It's Spring after all. So pop the champagne corks, blow the party hooters… today a picture book story I wrote 15 years ago is being launched at The Illustration Cupboard in London. The timing seems right. Everywhere I look there are giraffes galore – in the windows of Kath Kidson, in the Louis Vuitton ads ...

... but best of all on the cover of my new book, Zeraffa Giraffa.

In my notebook I found the date when my story started taking shape – August 1999. 

I’d just read the historical account in Michael Allin’s book Zarafa of the giraffe that was sent to Paris by the Pasha Muhammed Ali in 1827 – the second giraffe ever to be seen in Europe. But my fascination with giraffes began as a teenager when I’d come up really close to them in the wild on horseback in Zimbabwe – that graceful walk, their necks stretching out above the tree-line like exotic flowers, their lolloping gallop, their bizarre stance when drinking and their stares of curiosity.  

So why did my manuscript take 15 years to be published? 

Take heart those of you who have texts in your bottom drawer. Some stories are often just not right in a certain market – the perfect illustrator can’t be found… the economics don’t work. Then in 2004 I saw the magnificent life-size puppet performance of The Tall Horse based on the same story I'd written, produced by the Handspring puppet company in South Africa (it went on to tour in the US and Europe as well). The Handspring is the same company who much later produced the horse in War Horse. Their 5 metre tall giraffe of my story was made of carbon fibre rods, with two puppeteers on stilts inside the body frame, operating the turn of the head, the twitch of a tail or ear and the swaying, graceful gait. I was so mesmerized by the poetic performance that I still have the program and ticket. I can tell you that on Thursday 9th Sept 2004, I sat in seat N1 at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town.
the giraffe puppet from the production The Tall Horse
Zeraffa Giraffa is essentially a story of a journey of a giraffe who travels from Khartoum with her keeper Atir, down the Nile to Alexandria and across the sea to Marseilles, and finally walks to Paris… not as easy assignment for an illustrator. Who better than Jane Ray? She has captured brilliantly a sense of Africa as well as France in her wide double-paged vistas. We sense both the heat and shimmer of the desert and the contrasting softness of the French countryside without the book losing its fluidity. 

Her palette is strong, her colours intense, the detail sublime – tiny dots of gold highlight the texture on the giraffe’s horn, a sinuous, long, black tongue entwines the curls of the equally black French railing, an inquisitive monkey on the dhow, strange boxes with Arabic font and measurement ... what do they contain?... scraps of maps embedded in the sea suggesting the journey – wonderful, tiny, visual codes that will be picked up by an astute child. (perhaps even by an adult?) 

While I was writing Zeraffa Giraffa, I went to the Jardin des Plantes alongside the Seine in Paris to see the building of La Rotonde where the giraffe was housed together with her keeper, Atir. He slept up on a platform close to her face and remained with her for the rest of the 18 years she lived. I tried to imagine the bond that must have existed between them … two exiles from Africa… a boy who had never been further than Khartoum and a giraffe who had lost her savannah ... both alone in this strange, foreign city. What memories did they hold on to? 

Then a few days ago I saw an article in a newspaper about Mario, a zookeeper who has a brain tumour and can no longer walk, whose last wish was to see his beloved giraffes he’d looked after at the Rotterdam zoo. He was taken there by the Ambulance Wish Foundation. The newspaper shows a photograph of a tall giraffe bending low over a fence and nuzzling the face of the zookeeper as he lies strapped to his ambulance stretcher. What greater bond than that?

If you visit La Rotonde on a quiet day, close your eyes and perhaps you’ll feel the hot wind of Africa and imagine yourself standing there with Zeraffa and her keeper Atir, while he whispers stories to her of a land far away.

My giraffe and I have been on a long, long journey together. The giraffe’s journey took two years, mine took fifteen. Thank you Jane you’ve made the story come alive. Let’s pop those corks and blow the party hooters. Perhaps like the bakers of Paris, we might even celebrate with giraffe biscuits!

Zeraffa Giraffa, by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln, April 2014, translated so far as well, into Danish, Swedish, Korean and Afrikaans.


Elen C said...

Looks gorgeous and sounds like a heartbreaking/wonderful story! Have fun at the launch.

Joan Lennon said...

Just beautiful!

Linda Strachan said...

Congratulations, Dianne.
I remember you showed us your notebook at Charney quite a number of years ago. It is a work of art!!
A fabulous story and the book looks delightful.

Penny Dolan said...

Such a joy of a book, Dianne, even if it took so long - and those Jane Ray illustrations are certainly worth the wait.

Sonja Lewis said...

Congratulations, Di! What a remarkable accomplishment for both you and Jane. Can't wait to add to my bookshelves.

Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds so beautiful!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you all for your comments! Back from blowing party hooters and having fun! How nice it is to celebrate a book! Thank you Frances Lincoln for a great evening. What a lovely party! Feel very lucky tonight.

Maeve said...

Looks and sounds terrific. Congratulations. I am really looking forward to reading it.