Banned Books Week: Beverly Naidoo

by T. Gail Pritchard, Ph.D., The University of Arizona

As we wind up Banned Books Week (September 30-October 6, 2012), I found myself wondering about children’s books banned and/or challenged in other countries, and thus began searching for titles. I knew Journey to Jo’burg had been banned in South Africa, so I decide Beverly Naidoo and her first novel would be my first step in investigating banned/challenged children’s literature world-wide.

I distinctly remember how appalled I was when I read Journey to Jo’burg in 1988, followed quickly by my reading of Waiting for the Rain (1987) by Sheila Gordan. I think these two books may have been the first inkling of my understanding of apartheid. And while both authors are South Africans who wrote their books about apartheid during this controversial time in their home country’s history, it was Naidoo’s book that was banned.

Both novels tell the story of children affected by apartheid, but the similarities end there. While Gordan’s parallel’s the lives of two boys, a privileged white South African and his childhood playmate, a black South African, Naidoo’s novel follows two siblings who set off to Jo’burg, hundreds of miles away, to find their mother who works for a white South African family. This journey is predicated by their baby sister’s serious illness and the inability of the grandmother to pay for medical care. The siblings set off on foot and it is on this journey, the horrors of their poverty and apartheid is revealed to both them and readers.

Naidoo who describes herself as a “Jo’burg girl,” attended a segregated school and was tended to by a Black South African woman “who looked after me, ate her food off a tin plate, and… her own three children lived far away.” She tells how the novel is based on her nanny and cook, Mary:

One day she got a telegram and collapsed in front of me. Two of her small daughters had got diphtheria and died. I remember being sad and shocked – but I still didn’t ask WHY? I could not have caught diphtheria because as a white child I had been inoculated…. When I was writing, I wanted to explore for myself what it would be like to be separated from your mother when you most needed her. I also wanted to feel in touch with the courage of young black people in South Africa who were determined not to put up with racism and apartheid any longer.   (

While Naidoo did not originally question her privileged life, at university, she began to realize there were terrible things occurring in South Africa. “My upbringing led me to believe that white people were superior and it was natural for them to have the best of everything. But when I realised how false this was, I became very angry at all the injustice around me – and how I was part of it.” She became an activist in the anti-apartheid movement, leading to her arrest at 21, followed by 8 weeks in solitary, and ultimately exiled to England in 1965.

It was in England where she began to write. Journey to Jo’burg began her legacy of stories about “serious political and social issues—such as apartheid; colonialism; dictatorships and asylum-seekers” (; of injustice to and bravery of children. This first novel touched a raw nerve with the South African government where it was banned from the time of its publication until 1991. The South African government never offered a particular reason why the novel was banned. Perhaps it was because “half of the book’s royalties were going to a banned organization, the British Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, that was helping the families of political prisoners;” perhaps “the apartheid government thought it would encourage readers to ask challenging questions—especially young white South Africans who were being brought up to think that racism and discrimination were normal” (; or perhaps it was because she married a Black South African exile–apartheid laws did not allow interracial marriages. Whatever the reasons, Journey to Jo’burg and Beverly Naidoo invite readers to ask the question she did not as a child, why?


Retrieved October 8, 2012 from:
Retrieved October 8, 2012 from:
Retrieved October 8, 2012 from:
Retrieved October 8, 2012 from:

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