There has been no shortage of children’s books over the years that chronicle the life of Nelson Mandela — anti-apartheid activist, freedom fighter, politician, philanthropist, champion for social justice and peace, and South Africa’s first black president. But the first of its kind is now on shelves. Grandad Mandela, written by his daughter Zindzi and his great-grandchildren Zazi (age 8) and Ziwelene Mandela (age 6), is the only children’s book about the revolutionary leader that has been created by the Mandela family. Ambassador Zindzi Mandela, currently serving as South Africa’s ambassador to Denmark, is herself a diplomat and freedom fighter and the youngest child of President Mandela and Mrs. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

The book is structured as a conversation that Ambassador Mandela has with her grandchildren. “One day,” it opens, “Zazi and Ziwelene were playing at Grandma Zindzi’s house when they found a photograph. It was someone they remembered very well.” It’s a picture of “Grandad Mandela,” and the children, once again, want to hear stories from their grandmother about her father. Their questions guide the discussion, and they range from practical questions (“Did Grandad have to have his birthday in prison?”) to ones inherently more complex to answer (“What is justice?”). Mandela, their beloved grandmother, lays out the story of her father’s life and the negotiations that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, bringing peace to a racially-divided country. “Do you know how he did it?” she asks her grandchildren. “He got his enemies to sit with him around a table.”

Ambassador Mandela Ambassador Mandela knew immediately she wanted to structure the text this way. “As a granny,” she tells me via email, “I know how to talk with children, and it has always been my wish to write children’s books. When our publisher first approached us about doing a children’s picture book, we immediately knew we wanted it to be a family endeavor. Madiba’s legacy is something that is a part of the lifeblood of our family, and it was beautiful to be able to share this story together.” In fact, they began the creation of this text by sitting down as a family and merely having a conversation, all in an effort to see which questions would emerge for the children. “As we began to explore some questions more deeply,” she explains, “the full story started to come together.”

Award-winning, Brooklyn-based illustrator Sean Qualls was surprised and thrilled when his agent notified him that the publisher chose him to illustrate the book. (“I still don’t know how they knew of my work.”) He instantly connected with the text. “I like to think,” he tells me, “that the common denominator connecting most of my books is that their subjects are people who do not allow circumstance or external factors to determine who they are. Nelson Mandela is the ultimate embodiment of that spirit of self-determination and exemplifies the depth of what humanity can endure and realize.”

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Sean Qualls Describing this as “one of the greatest moments of my career so far,” Qualls says it has given him not only the opportunity to share the values he holds dear with a much broader audience, but it also afforded him the good fortune to connect with the Mandela family, who provided him with family photos. He also did his own research, including reading President Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and watching films about the legendary activist, as well as about apartheid and South Africa. Qualls’ art — rendered via acrylics, collage, and colored pencils on full-bleed spreads with a muted palette of cool blues and earth tones — is what Ambassador Mandela describes as “relatable.” People, she tells me, are “able to see themselves in the art, far beyond the realistic depiction of the characters. I felt the illustrations were sensitively handled; his art has a beautiful mood to it. You can really feel the emotion behind the people in his art, which sat nicely with what we wanted to express in the text.”

Grandad Mandela

The book’s publication is a bittersweet moment for the Ambassador, as it marks and celebrates what would have been her father’s 100th birthday on July 18, 2018. “For much of my life, I’ve had to rely on memories of my father,” she says, “especially during the time he was behind bars. Even after he was freed from prison, those memories were a reminder of how precious our time was together, and I want to share that.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

GRANDAD MANDELA © 2018 Quarto Publishing plc. Text © 2018 Mandela Legacy. Illustrations © 2018 Sean Qualls and used by permission of the publisher, The Quarto Group, Minneapolis. 

Photo of Ambassador Mandela is courtesy of Julio E. Torres.