Michelle Nkamankeng is only seven years old but her poise is as disarming as her smile when she beams about the headlines her book is grabbing at home and abroad
The South African has become one of the youngest published authors on the continent and an inspiration for other children with a short novel she wrote largely in secret, Waiting for the Waves.
Using green and purple pens, Nkamankeng set down the story of Titi, a little girl fascinated by the ocean and its huge waves – which the US giant Amazon bills as nothing less than “an epic tale” recounting “the inner struggle of love and fear”.
“My brother and sisters knew because they always came in my room. The are like, ‘What are you doing?” said Nkamankeng.
“I told them not to tell mummy and daddy. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
And it was, but not quite what Nkamankeng expected. Her parents knew she was a bookworm but were hesitant about her dream of publishing her own novel.
WATCH: Michelle Nkamankeng talks about the inspiration behind her book, Waiting for the Waves
On the original manuscript, the hand-written sentences tilt along the pages of A4, or letter-size, sheets folded in half and put together with staples and scotch tape to resemble a real book.
Its cover bears the title and the young writer’s name while the last page has a big heart drawn by Nkamankeng and a candid little message: “I hope you had a nice time reading this book.”
When she gave me the novel, said her mother Lolo Nkamankeng, “I took it and put it inside the bookshelves,” amidst the Bibles, dictionaries and a few magazines.
But Nkamankeng – touted on Amazon’s website as smart and passionate – was also insistent. A few weeks later she brought her parents a second, then a third book. “I said to my mother if you don’t take me seriously, I will never write books.
Her dream came true a year later when her parents helped her self-publish Waiting for the Waves, a glossy, 50-some page novel – edited from the original – with lively illustrations by a South African artist.
The tale of how little Titi conquers her fear of waves with love and support from her own family caught attention. Nkamankeng was suddenly on a round of book launches, press interviews and speaking engagements.
“If we are honest, it is a children’s book, it is a book written by a child…,” said Colin Northmore, head of the Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg that Nkamankeng attends.
“In some ways I am almost more proud of her being able to speak confidently than I am about the book,” he said.
Brimming with joy, Nkamankeng has addressed rooms packed with up to 700 high school children as well as a community centre for underprivileged youngsters.
Her experience “raises the expectations of other children and helps them to believe that it is possible for them to achieve remarkable things because there in an example, a model, a peer who has done it, “ said Northmore.
Nkamankeng told AFP her advice for other children wanting to write books: “to follow their dreams, always believe in themselves, don’t let anybody get in your way, and if you can’t read you can’t write.”
She remains silent, however, on one of the keys that helped her achieve her dream – a mother who acts as her manager and was willing to spend R100,000 to publish and promote Waiting for the Waves.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Nkamankeng finishes her homework for the next day. A phrase she has written on the cover of her vocabulary book characterises her determination: “I must learn these words and store them in my memory for future use”.
Her goal at the moment is to be a paediatrician – and to continue writing and publishing.