Interview with Author, Allan Low

Created May 21, 2024 by Elizabeth Sparg

South Africa

Allan Low has worked with rural communities in Eastern and Southern Africa for forty five years. Eleven years ago Allan and his late wife, Anne, setup the charity SHAMBA. SHAMBA works with communities to enable their most disadvantaged children from AIDS affected households gain access to high quality early childhood care and education through their ‘Bright Future’ preschools. Allan now lives in Wetherby, UK and continues to visit the charity and manage its work. He is an SCBWI South Africa member as well as a member of the British Isles chapter.

Since 2022, Allan has independently published a middle grade novel and two picture books, with a third picture book in his “Bundu Bunch” series coming out later this year. His books are inspired by the real lives of AIDS orphans in Southern Africa, particularly in Eswatini.

Allan Low's Children's Books

What inspired you to be an author?

I should start by making it clear that I do not think of myself as an author, in the sense of seeing writing as a career.

Where do your ideas come from?

My ideas have come from the activities I have been involved with, especially in relation to early child development.

What do you find challenging in the creative process?

Marketing and promotion.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

My proudest achievement has been when my daughter told me that my grandson (age 7) had “yet again” asked for the book he wanted to her to read at bedtime was my book “Dumb Orphans”. That was time number 4.

Do you have a favourite place to work? Describe it!

In front of my computer. And that can be anywhere.

The word processer is a marvellous invention. I have learned to think as I type. That started when I typed up my PhD thesis on a mainframe computer terminal with a line printer in 1981.

What advice would you give to aspiring children's book creators who want to break into the industry and create meaningful books for young readers?

Write the story and give it to a beta reader for critical comment. Take note of the feedback and be prepared to make significant changes in the light of them. This is difficult when you have what you think is an “oven ready” manuscript. But it will result in a better product in the end.

Can you tell us about your artistic background and the path that led you to become an author/illustrator?

For my ideas to reach a wider audience and secure a less dusty shelf life, I was motivated to publish more widely in the form of technical articles in agricultural and health journals, as well as through a book on small farmer development behaviour in southern Africa.

In retirement I became involved with assisting orphaned and vulnerable children. I developed a new set of ideas about early child development. I no longer felt capable of writing academic articles on the subject. But I had always enjoyed telling stories to my children and grandchildren, so why not write a children’s storybook about these orphan lives instead?

What types of children's books do you enjoy working on the most (e.g., picture books, chapter books, middle-grade novels), and why?

Middle grade novels, because this gives the opportunity to express views through a story. Hopefully an exciting and fun story.

Can you describe your creative process when you start working on a new children's book project?

For my one and only middle grade novel, I started with imagining the challenges faced by the orphans who I was meeting at the preschools that our charity was supporting. I created events around which to tell their story.

How do you maintain a balance between creating entertaining stories and educating or inspiring young readers through your work?

I think all stories have a message. In the books I have written the story has come first. All stories are about something that happened to someone, somewhere. The description of what happens needs to be engaging and entertaining. For children events need to keep happening and one event needs to lead to another. That is what makes it engaging and entertaining.

To start a story, I need to be clear about the context and the characters. I don’t need to know the events or their order.

Once the story has been told in outline, it can be elaborated and adjusted in ways that educate and inspire. But the story has to be a good story in the first place, to keep the readers engaged.

Do you have any favourite children's book creators or literary influences who have inspired your work? How have they shaped your style or approach to storytelling?

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay is one of my favourites. I admire the style, which tells the story from the perspective of the boy, Peekay. Also it is grounded in historical reality and is therefore educational as well as entertaining.

Collaboration is essential in children's book publishing. How do you work with authors, illustrators, editors, and art directors to ensure your illustrations align with the overall vision of the book?

To find an illustrator for my first book, I searched online for an illustrator in South Africa. I picked Elizabeth Sparg. She expressed interest. And that was it.

I have done little more than produced the text, which Elizabeth reads and comes up with ideas for relevant illustrations. So far these have pretty well matched what I had in mind and have often elaborated on my thinking.

In my limited experience, I think the author needs to let the illustrator express his/her impressions through the images. In this way the output is a genuine joint product, benefiting from two creative thinkers. Two minds are better than one.

What do you do in your spare time?

For me there is no such thing as spare time. If you mean, how do I spend my time when I am not writing children’s stories, then I can list some activities. The list includes: managing the charity SHAMBA, learning about how to publish and market children’s books, reading, exercising, being a taxi driver for grandchildren and watching Netlix.

What is your favourite children’s book and why?

Jock of the Bushveld. It is based on real life, explores the development of a relationship (between dog and master), and consists of a series of exciting stories.

What does your typical working day look like?

There isn’t one. I don’t work. Writing is now a retirement hobby.

Animals feature heavily in children’s books – do you have a pet?

I have two half pet dogs who I look after from time to time. One is a labrador, the other a dachshund. They live with my two daughters. I find they are very like grandchildren. They respond well to clear, strict and consistent rules. And they are much more pleasant and better behaved when I have them on their own away from their “parents”.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

Self-publish. That way you keep control and you will get your ideas “out there”. Traditional publishing is a closed shop and impossible to break into without any personal contacts.

Allan Low’s children’s books include:

"Dumb" Orphans : The Bundu Bunch Trilogy (A middle grade novel, illustrated by Elizabeth Sparg)

The Bundu Bunch get to Write their Names (A picture book and the first in The Bundu Bunch Series, illustrated by Elizabeth Sparg)

The Bundu Bunch get to Right Two Wrongs (A picture book and the second in The Bundu Bunch Series, illustrated by Elizabeth Sparg)

Elizabeth Sparg uses gouache and color pencil to create her playful and painterly illustrations. She was selected as one of the winners in the 2021 Picture This! illustration award.

Contact Allan Low here

Find out more about the SHAMBA Trust.

Allan Low presenting in Eswatini at the book launch for "The Bundu Bunch get to Write their Names".