|Adrienne Wright, author and illustrator of Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid (Page Street Kids, 2019), will be joining our faculty at Fall Philly on November 2. Virginia Law Manning caught up with Adrienne to discuss this important book.|
Virginia: I’m thrilled to talk to you today, Adrienne, about your powerful debut picture book, Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid (Page Street Kids, June 2019). Ever since you first told me about your project, I was excited because I understood what an important story it was to share with young readers. For those who haven’t read your book, can you tell them what it’s about?
Adrienne: Thanks for inviting me, Virginia! Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid is based on the true story of a 12-year-old boy, Hector Zolile Pieterson, who was killed by police while caught up in a student protest against unfair and inferior education for black students in 1976. The event was captured in a heartbreaking photograph of Hector, which shed light on the events that helped lead to the end of apartheid.
Virginia: You’ve said your publisher describes the book as the biography of a photograph. Do you remember when you first saw the image?
Adrienne: I was a teenager at the time of the student protest, living in Benoni, a town near Johannesburg and Soweto. Sam Nzima’s photograph was first published in The World newspaper, local to black readers in Soweto. I saw it in the days following, when it was published in various other newspapers before being banned.
Virginia: At that time, how much did you know about Hector?
Adrienne: I knew nothing about Hector. When the photograph was first published, Hector was not identified. Then after it was printed in the paper, the South African government banned the photograph. It was out of the public eye for a long time. During that time, I moved to the United States. After apartheid ended in 1994, the photograph resurfaced, but Hector’s memory and the protest had been kept alive as part of the struggle [against apartheid].
Virginia: When did you first start thinking about writing a book about Hector?
Adrienne: I’d seen the photograph at various times over the years. About seven years ago I came across it again online. The image is so powerful that when I saw it, I recognized it instantly. But I wondered why I knew so little about the boy himself. I knew about the protest and the student movement that led to the tragic image, but nothing about Hector, the person.
In talking to my sister, I found out she had been to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial in Soweto. I had no idea that the museum existed until she told me about her visit!
After finding the photo online, I researched to see if I could find any books for children about Hector or the protest in general and found none. As I looked at the photo more closely, I noticed that he was wearing only one shoe. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know what had happened to his sister, who is seen running, crying, next to the older boy who is carrying Hector. And what happened to the older boy? And the photographer who took the iconic photograph? I thought if I could find the answers to all these questions, it might be of interest to readers.
Before doing much more research though, I began sketching concept illustrations of the protest. I hadn’t written anything yet. I kept thinking someone else would!
Virginia: How did you do your research?
Adrienne: I contacted the Hector Pieterson Museum director and discovered that Hector’s sister Antoinette, seen in the photograph, worked there as a guide. She agreed to be interviewed and arranged for her mother to be interviewed too. I was also able to get in touch with Sam Nzima, the photographer, and I interviewed him and got his permission to use the photograph. These three people were my primary sources. I also started to see more articles and interviews online.
I had a couple of books about Soweto and the protests, which gave some general information. Then I visited South Africa and was lucky enough to meet Antoinette and Hector’s mother. Antoinette guided me on a tour of the Hector Pieterson Museum and gave me even more insight into her brother’s life and the events of June 16, 1976, the day of the protest. These additional conversations were invaluable.
While in South Africa, I spent time at libraries and delved into their archives of cuttings and microfilm of newspapers and magazines, which I used for some of the illustrations. Also, some of the now unbanned photos by Sam Nzima and other photographers were references or inspiration for the art.
Virginia: How long did it take you to write Hector from the time you first had the idea to the date you submitted your manuscript to Page Street Kids?
Adrienne: About five years from first ideas to submitting a WIP, then another two-plus years to publication. The road was long but worth every step! My original idea was to tell parallel stories of Hector, the black boy, and a white girl (a real person) living separate and unequal lives in South Africa. It took many manuscript versions and critiques from industry professionals to finally convince me to let go of the white girl’s story, since it “didn’t move Hector’s story forward,” as they would say. That was an important lesson for me to learn. It’s often tough to let go of something you believe has strength and you think is essential and interesting. I still wanted to keep the idea of alternate viewpoints, especially since, as I mentioned, Hector died early in the day of the protest, so I needed others to continue the story after his death.
Virginia: When you talk about your book, do you find many people recognize the photograph?
Adrienne: So far, not many people here in the U.S. recognize the photograph. I’ve come across a scant few who know any details of the protest and what it stood for, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. Of course, in South Africa, the photograph of Hector is iconic, and Hector is a hero. The museum and memorial are in Soweto, near the spot where Hector was gunned down. It’s now a destination for those visiting South Africa. His story is becoming well known, especially for foreign visitors. Hopefully my book will continue to spread the word.
Virginia: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with readers?
Adrienne: Keep trying, keep putting yourself out there! (I know it can be exhausting.) I also recommend you write and/or illustrate things that really mean something to you. If you don’t feel it in your heart, it won’t come out on the page. And to quote Debbie Ridpath Ohi, “Writers and illustrators: You only fail if you quit. Take a break if you need to, but DON’T GIVE UP.”
Virginia: Thank you so much, Adrienne, for sharing your story as well as Hector’s with our members! I’m truly grateful for the inspiration you’ve given us all!!!
Adrienne will be speaking on our panel, “Bridging the Divide—Real Talk on Writing Sensitively, Inclusively, and Accurately,” and will be offering critiques and leading a breakout session at Fall Philly. To register, go to our event page here.
Adrienne Wright is an author, illustrator, member of SCBWI, and the chapter’s former Illustrator Coordinator (2000-2017). She lives in Gulph Mills, PA with her family.
Adrienne’s debut picture book, Hector: A Boy, A Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid (published by Page Street Kids, June 4, 2019, distributed by MacMillan), is a Junior Library Guild selection and received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and ALA Booklist.