On writing for younger readers
Saturday April 28 2018
Teen literature day is celebrated on April 12. Ghanaian author Ruby Yayra Gokahas published 15 books for children and young adults.
Last year, she won the All-Star Honour book prize given by the Burt Award for African writers of young adult literature. This was her eighth Burt award.
A practising dentist, Goka, 36, writes part-time. Two of her books are mystery novels, and others are coming-of-age stories of teenagers tackling love, imperfect families and adolescent insecurities. She also writes about child trafficking and Internet trawling targeting the youth.
Last year, she won Ghana’s “Forty Under Forty” awards in the category of Authorship and Creative Writing Category. I met Goka at the 2017 Storymoja literary festival in Nairobi recently.
What drew you to the genre of children/young adults?
I read a lot growing up but never realised I was not reading anything that featured a young African protagonist.
My first book with a black female character was The Jasmine Candle, by Christine Botchway. I loved the descriptions of the food, Zenobia’s hair and skin, the weather, the environment, even the way the characters spoke.
These were things I could relate to. The story seemed to come alive because I knew the setting, and it was almost as if I knew people too.
When I started writing, I wanted African children and young adults to see themselves reflected in books. To give them a sense of identity, to let them know that their stories matter too, that they are important enough to have books written about them.
Where do you get ideas for your stories?
Usually it’s a new location and sense of place. Travelling to different parts of Ghana and seeing how people live gives me ideas. The Middle of Nowhere, Perfectly Imperfect, The Lost Royal Treasure and The Step-Monster were inspired by the settings of the stories.
Plain Yellow and When the Shackles Fall were the results of news stories. Disfigured was written after I found a lump in my breast.
How did you learn to write novels?
I read a lot of novels, young adult books and children’s books. That’s an important part of writing well. There are numerous articles and books you can download from the Internet that give good guidance.
I haven’t had any formal training, but after I began writing I attended workshops organised by the Ghana Book Trust, the Canadian Organisation for Development through Education, and the Burt Awards.
What are the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being a writer?
My favourite part is when I type the final word. It is cathartic, a feeling that I’ve given this my all, now I can go back to living my life and get a full night’s sleep.
Once I get into a story, it consumes me and I use every spare minute to write. The most challenging part is the editing process.
Ghana has very few professional editors and I cringe whenever a new book is published. I notice errors that should have been picked up by an editor.
How have readers responded to your books?
The feedback is affirming. I love it when people discuss the book and ask me if I have been to their communities because the setting is the same or because I’ve described someone they know.
I am happiest about the number of young people now writing their own stories because my books have been an inspiration to them.
What is the market in Ghana for African young adult books like?
Currently, there is a movement to promote reading for pleasure, solely driven by individual efforts. Book readings and author events are gaining prominence. There is still a long way to go, but how far we’ve come in a short time is impressive.
What were your favourite books growing up?
Anything by Enid Blyton and Judy Blume. The Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Sweet Valley High book series. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Goosebumps by R. L. Stine, The Baby-sitters Club, by Ann Martin, and Spears Down, by Christine Botchway.
Your books have won several Burt awards.
The manuscripts are judged anonymously to ensure that the stories win solely on merit. All winning stories have been exciting and different. They are contemporary, and modern African children can relate to them.
How would you like to see creative writing and book publishing develop in Africa?
When I walk into a bookshop in any African country I would love to be told that the second, third and fourth floors (or more) all carry African books with various genres — horror, sci-fi, romance, young adult, picture books, traditional tales, fantasy, historical fiction, biographies and autobiographies and adventure.