An interview with Dr. Cole and Nelda LaTeef
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with noted anthropologist and educator Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole and award-winning illustrator Nelda La Teef.
We discuss their picture book, African Proverbs for All Ages, the first Oprah Book. It is a beautifully-illustrated, engaging picture book about the power of proverbs, how they evolve over time, and the wisdom of various cultures in Africa.
A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Dr. Cole grew up during the days of racial segregation. She holds a B.A. in sociology from Oberlin College, and masters and doctorate degrees from Northwestern University. Dr. Cole has conducted anthropological fieldwork in Liberia, West Africa, and traveled to 17 African countries. She is the only person to have served as president for both Spelman and Bennet Colleges; she was also the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art from 2009 to 2016. Dr. Cole serves as the Chair of the Board and the President of the National Council of Negro Women, an organization with a membership of over two million women of African descent. Throughout her career, she has worked on issues of racial, gender, and other systems of inequality.
Nelda LaTeef is the award-winning author and illustrator of The Hunter and The Ebony Tree, Animal Village, and The Talking Baobab Tree. She grew up in a US Foreign Service family and spent her childhood attending schools in Europe, Africa, and Asia. She has traveled throughout West Africa conducting field research and has even been to the fabled city of Timbuktu. She holds a degree in social anthropology from Harvard University. Nelda lives in Virginia with her family where she enjoys traveling, tennis, and cycling.
Listen to the Interview
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Nelda Lateef and Dr. Cole, I am so honored to have you here. I was very lucky to join a virtual meet and greet hosted by Macmillan Kids, and that’s when I was introduced to your incredible picture book African Proverbs for All Ages. And while you were talking, I had goosebumps, and I knew that I wanted The Growing Readers podcast listeners to get to hear you both speak. So, I just want to start by thanking you for joining us.
Nelda LaTeef: Well, thank you so much for having us, and we are thrilled to be here.
Bianca Schulze: Wonderful, Nelda.
Dr. Cole: I just need to say, Bianca Schulze, we’ve been counting down for this moment.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, thank you, Dr. Cole. Well, just from reading both of your dedications in the front of the book, I know that you hope that readers will be inspired to learn, think, question, dream and grow wiser as they ponder the meanings of the sayings in your book. Proverbs have been described as short sentences based on long experience, so essentially, they’re little nuggets of wisdom developed over time from the human experience. And I thought I’d start by asking if you, Nelda, would share why you believe that self-proclaimed quote nerds like me are drawn to proverbs?
Nelda LaTeef: That’s an interesting question. I think that proverbs just really capture the wisdom, and it’s encapsulated briefly and in such a memorable way. I think proverbs really help us get our thoughts across in a very succinct and sort of magical way.
Bianca Schulze: Dr. Cole, do you have anything you’d like to add to why you think people are drawn to proverbs?
Dr. Cole: Well, first, let’s acknowledge that proverbs are not the exclusive possession of a people on the African continent. We’re talking about something that is universally appreciated. I would even say we are talking about something that helps each of the people of the world better understand their human condition and even connect with human conditions worldwide. Sometimes we call them sayings. Sometimes we call them aphorisms. But what people don’t have a saying? And so, my dearest sister-friend Nelda LaTeef and I, we’re beyond honored. We are so full of joy to be able to share some of our favorite proverbs from the continent of Africa.
Bianca Schulze: You wrote something that I thought was wonderful, and I’m just going to read it here. You said when words fail, nothing is more impactful or rewarding than being able to quote an appropriate proverb to get your message across. And you said: “It is said, a wise person who knows proverbs can reconcile differences.” And I loved the way you put that down in writing—I think that summed it up so well.
Nelda LaTeef: Well, that quote comes from Dr. Cole’s introduction to our book, and I really think that a great proverb is one that expresses in a succinct and direct way and unexpected truth that grabs your attention and makes you think, wow. And your first thought really is, I need to remember this, and you want to write it down somewhere.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. With all of this in mind, let’s start at the very conception of the idea for this book. It’s important to note that African Proverbs for All Ages is the first children’s book with the Oprah Book stamp. Nelda, I read in the acknowledgments that the idea for this book was hatched over a cup of tea. So, will you take us all back into that moment and share the conversation that you had with Dr. Cole?
Nelda LaTeef: Well, I was going to present Dr. Cole with a book that I had written earlier based on African oral tradition, and she had been kind enough to write a blurb for the book. And during our visit, we discovered that we shared a mutual admiration for African proverbs. On the spot, we decided to collaborate on a children’s picture book on the subject. We agreed that we would pool our favorite proverbs together. Dr. Cole would write the preface for the book, and I would do the illustrations. And it was this bond and teamwork that propelled our book onward. Dr. Cole’s favorite word is onward.
We were always eager to get together to discuss the new proverbs and unveil the latest illustrations I had completed. Dr. Cole’s enthusiasm for the art and the proverbs and her keen eye and depth of knowledge, and generosity of spirit made working on this book a truly joyful experience. And we were always so excited when we came up with a new proverb that we both loved, and we were always on the same wavelength regarding proverbs.
Bianca Schulze: So, the book’s premise is that each of the 16 double-page spreads includes a piece of your stunning artwork, Nelda, and then it features four different proverbs. Each of the sayings is connected to the artwork, somehow, but readers will get to guess which one best captures the essence of the picture. I think this concept is absolutely genius in that it sets readers up for a conversation and helps them take a deeper look at the meanings of each proverb. So, Dr. Cole, do you want to speak about the concept and how it helps open the eyes of young readers to see the world in a new way?
Dr. Cole: Well, I want to give full credit to my dear, and I’ve got to put it this way, award-winning illustrator collaborator Nelda LaTeef, because the work that she does insists that she think about how children receive information, how they learn, and I would even say using an African proverb, how they teach because she who learns must teach and she who teaches, must learn. And so, Nelda wanted this book to be genuinely interactive. It was her idea that a child or the child inside of an adult should be so engaged with these African proverbs that they would say, while each of these proverbs could certainly be used in connection with this illustration, in my view, which is the best one? And so, I’m convinced that this is one of the strongest features of our children’s book.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. I love that it’s not just African proverbs or African proverbs for kids. I love that it is African Proverbs for All Ages. I enjoyed personally sitting with my children and going over it and the discussions that came up over the different proverbs and their meanings. And, you know, my kids blew me away actually with some of their responses. And so, I love that this book will affect adults and children as well. I love that feature of the book so much.
Nelda LaTeef: Well, we really love the fact that art makes the viewer really have to spend time analyzing the picture and trying to figure out which proverb we are narrating in that illustration? I think this approach invites readers to really analyze each proverb and own it.
Observed in the back of the book: “The genius of African Proverbs for All Ages is that each stunningly eloquent panel offers a teachable moment. In this regard, this gem of a book leads readers of all ages of all lands and climbs towards a shared understanding.” I love that description.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I do, too. I do, too. So, either Nelda or Dr. Cole, will you tell us about collecting these proverbs, where you found them all, and how you decided which ones to include in this book?
Dr. Cole: Hmm. Well, the process of falling in love with proverbs, which preceded our collecting, happened at different times on different days in different countries, as Nelda LaTeef and I had the privilege of working on the continent of Africa. So, in many ways, this book was conceived years ago. For me, I can date it. It was 1960 to 1962 when I did my fieldwork. I wanted to be an anthropologist, a cultural anthropologist. You gotta do fieldwork if your area of interest and specialization is Africa.
So, living for two years in Liberia and then over the years having the privilege—and I did count it up—I have actually had the privilege of being in 17 of the 54 African countries. You just can’t go to the continent. I don’t care how much you’re spending your time in an urban area or enjoying being in a village; you are going to hear proverbs. And I hope Nelda will talk a little bit about her first experiences on the continent. So that’s when we fell in love with proverbs.
As we came together, it was really a very, I would say, precious and powerful expression of women’s collaboration as each of us brought our favorites as we had to decide what we’ve got too many of these guys and not enough of that. We collaborated. It wasn’t a question of one of us having in quotes the final say; it was that we wanted each of the selections to genuinely feel right. Good. Reflective of the genius of African proverbs.
So, Nelda, say a little bit about your very early and ongoing engagement with the African continent, the only place on Earth from which every one of us humans has descended.
Nelda LaTeef: I grew up in a U.S. Foreign Service family, and it’s no surprise that one of my favorite proverbs in our book happens to be, traveling leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller. And that’s exactly what happened to me growing up. We spent time living in Niger and Nigeria, and Senegal, and that background has informed all my writings and illustrations. It sort of transforms you when you travel. Another Kenyan proverb is traveling is learning, and it gives you a broad frame of reference and understanding and appreciation for human differences as you become familiar with diverse cultures.
While in Nigeria, we used to go out into the bush and just out of the capital Niamey. You would encounter giraffes wandering, so we enjoyed going to see the giraffes and, on the way, back we would stop at a village where one of my friend’s grandfather lived. There was an elderly woman who would sit under an acacia tree, and she would be selling chocolates. We’d stop and buy some chocolates, and she would tell us stories. On the way back, my friends would translate into French—because that was our common language—what she had said, and I would take notes. Many years later, when I went through these old boxes, I came across those notes, and I thought, wow, this is a wonderful source for children’s books. There’s something powerful about hearing stories firsthand, even when you don’t understand the language.
Bianca Schulze: I know not everybody gets the privilege to travel in their life, and so, therefore, I just think books are so magic. It is because either through travel you become a storyteller, just as the proverb says and the proverb you just mentioned, Nelda. So, through traveling, we become storytellers. But through reading, we also become travelers, and through the stories, we become travelers. And so, I want to take a moment to just really honor how your book shares the wisdom of Africa’s diverse people and cultures.
And I think it’s important to note—and Dr. Cole, I think when I was listening to you way back months ago in that meet and greet—you made a point of pointing out that Africa is a continent. Africa is not a country. And I have to say, as a child who I grew up in Australia, well, it’s the Oceanic continent, right? And so, for me, I thought Africa was a country when I was young. I love that your book will make sure that children will realize that because in the back matter, there’s the map of Africa, and all the 54 individual countries are labeled there. So, I just wanted to take a moment to honor that part of your book.
Dr. Cole: It’s an important point that you’re making. It’s a very important point. You know, we should not chastise ourselves overly for having this information. But when the correct information is available, and we don’t take advantage of it, then we really do need to think, why do we consistently do that? And while I’m sure Bianca, there are stereotypes—and more stereotypes and misinformation about the land for which you come about Australia—I can certainly say—and my sister-friend, Nelda, will agree with me—that it’s time for us to get rid of misinformation and stereotypes.
And so, without being preachy. Without just inviting readers to sit down for a boring lecture about Africa, we think this book of proverbs for all ages will correct so much misinformation and stereotypes about the diverse peoples of the 54 countries that make up what we now call Africa.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, so beautifully said. So, I have a call-in that I am going to play for you. It is a child that has had the opportunity to read your book ahead of the release date. So, I am going to press play.
Lola: Hi, my name is Lola, and I’m nine years old. My favorite proverb was probably, “only once you have carried your own water will you learn the value of every job.” I’m wondering what your favorite proverb was in the book? Thank you.
Dr. Cole: Nelda, you’ve got to answer so that I can have a minute.
Nelda LaTeef: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead. Please go ahead.
Dr. Cole: No, no, no.
Nelda LaTeef: Well, actually, that is so interesting because that is one of my favorite proverbs. And that’s why I chose to illustrate it. Obviously, she saw the illustration, and I think the essence of that proverb is communicated in the glance of the girl in the foreground who looks at us in a rather reproachful way as if to say only once you have carried your own water will you learn the value of every drop as you see these amazing women walking because women and young girls carrying water is a very common sight in the African countryside. So, I did this illustration where I tried to capture the strength, beauty, and determination of African women and children as they carry water long distances along barren stretches under a hot sun.
But I also think one of my favorite ones is if you think you have someone eating out of your hands, it is a good idea to count your fingers: Niger, a Nigerian proverb.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, thank you for stating that it was a Nigerian proverb because I just want to go back to when we were talking about Africa in the backmatter. You have shared which proverbs you chose to illustrate, and that’s all included in the back. And where possible, you’ve included the country that that proverb originated from. So, I loved that aspect. So, I’m glad you just mentioned that.
Dr. Cole: I’ve already given you one of my favorite proverbs and thank you to the special nine-year-old who posed the question. And it’s this: she who learns must teach, and she who teaches, must learn. I love that proverb, surely, in part because I’m a teacher. For many years, you would have called me a professor because I taught at the college and university level. But Professor is just a fancy word for being a teacher. What’s so important to me about this proverb, it breaks the line that is drawn between this group of people who teach and this group of people who learn, and it says, you know what? Teachers need to keep learning. In fact, all adults need to keep learning. And guess what? Students nine years old, eight years old, seven, six, five, four, three. They can teach as well because each of us, each of us human beings, has the ability to both learn and to share what we’ve learned.
And since my dear collaborator, Nelda, gave two favorite proverbs, here’s my other one. Well, at least one of many. A single bracelet does not jingle. There are so many African proverbs that make this same point. It’s the point that collaboration that working together is so important.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, here here.
Nelda LaTeef: What I love about Dr. Cole is that she’s not only an eloquent speaker, but she is also an equally eloquent listener, and she is always in the moment, and she is constantly learning and that’s what she has really shared with me.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. I think that’s why when I listened to both of you speak months ago, I think that’s what I felt. Both of you are so eloquent in your responses and so thoughtful, and that comes across in your book. I want to bring up a little quote here because I think it’s pretty fun one. And I was lucky enough to spot Nelda’s kitty cat in the background right before we started chatting today. So, the quote is: When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole nearby. Well, will one of you speak to that quote for me?
Dr. Cole: Nelda, you’ve got to respond.
Nelda LaTeef: This proverb provides a punchy and rather picturesque way of saying If you plan on stirring up trouble, in this case by the mouse drinking from the cat’s bowl, you had better have an exit strategy. But as for the cat and the illustration, my family insisted I feature our cat Pippen who you spotted earlier behind me. Besides being adorable, Pippen’s qualifications include a proven track record as a mouse chaser. Mind you, not a mouse hunter, but a mouse chaser, because after cornering the mouse, she leaves it all up to us to assist the mouse out the door with a butterfly net.
About the layout of the illustration for this proverb—I want to point out that in the foreground where I painted receding wood floor planks to create depth of perception. I achieved that uniform depth by incorporating something called the one-point perspective, which I’m eager to teach children since it is such a magical way of achieving a vanishing point.
Bianca Schulze: There’s a spread on pages thirty-six and thirty-seven that I think will resonate with, particularly with any mother or any caregiver. And it is the page where I’m assuming it’s the mother who has a very small child in her lap, who obviously has a fever, and she is trying to cool the fever, and the quote that felt meaningful to me as a mother was: We wish two things for our children. The first is roots. The second is wings.
I just found that particular quote so moving and all four quotes, and I don’t want to read them all because, people, you have to go and get this book. And I mean, it’s incredible. Every single proverb is going to have a meaning to you personally.
Dr. Cole: Well, it has deep meaning for me as well, because I think that while each of us has a mom or is a dad, auntie, uncle, grandpa, grandma, we want our children to understand where they have come from. Who are their people? What is their particular family history and her story? But if we only give our children the grounding of who they are as recipients of a lineage and we don’t allow them, or better put, we don’t encourage them to move on in their own way to find their passion, yes, to fly, then we really have not done well by our children. And that’s the beauty in this proverb. It says that every child really has, I would say, the right, the responsibility to know his or her roots, but let that child soar, soar to the height of that child’s possibilities.
Bianca Schulze: You did it again. Goosebumps. I do love that spread. I feel like that encompasses the ‘for all ages’ and what a special spread for a caregiver. Any grown-up that’s reading to the children in their life to share that particular spread. I just love it.
Nelda LaTeef: Well, thank you so much, because I really enjoyed doing that in the details, and I’m glad that it came across.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, 100 percent. Nelda, it really did.
So, I want to go on a little bit of a tangent here because it’s a question that I ask everybody that we talk to on this podcast, and it is: To be a writer, they say that you need to be a reader first. So, Nelda, let’s start with you. Was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
Nelda LaTeef: Yes. I remember we were in Tunisia, and I was, I think, about nine years old, and I read my first big book, and it was Lorna Doone, and I just couldn’t put it down until I had read it from cover to cover. It was a riveting story that took place in 18th century England. And when I look back at it, and I reread it, it’s like, oh, there’s a lot of difficult words in there. And I later read that the class at Yale 1907 voted that their favorite book. And yet, I was nine years old at the time, and ever since, I’ve been hooked on books.
I have to tell you a little story involving my father, who was always reading a book or a newspaper. He grew up in Boston and lived next door to his family physician. My grandmother thought the world of him, and she asked him what advice he could give her to pass on to her son to be successful in life. To this day, Dr. DeRico’s advice read, read, read still echoes in our family’s lore.
When we were in Afghanistan, I remember having my friends come over to ask me to play and tell my mother, oh, tell them I’m busy because I’d be in the middle of another adventure. Books have always been very meaningful to me.
Bianca Schulze: Actually, this brings up an interesting question, and then I want to ask the same question of you, Dr. Cole. There’s a lot of talk about access to books. We’re fortunate here in the United States, but there are even people here who don’t have access to books. So, I’m curious about both of your travels, Nelda and Dr. Cole. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you’ve seen with access to books, even from when you were a child, Nelda, and your school in different countries? What is that like getting access to children’s books?
Nelda LaTeef: Well, in my case, I attended American community schools wherever I went, and so our libraries were always pretty full and had most of, you know, the Nancy Drew and all the children’s picture books that you would expect. But we would also go to the local schools and provide them with books—give them books and collect them among our various families. And so, it was a matter of sharing.
But when we traveled to Niger in West Africa, there were no American schools. I took correspondence courses through the Calvert system. I would do my studies in English, at home, in the afternoon. And the morning, I would attend a local Nigerian school to learn French and have friends my age. There were a few books, and we learned by copying what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. The school did not have a library, but I recall being introduced to Ishida storytelling. We would assemble outdoors, and a teacher would stand behind a painted wooden frame that resembled the frame of a puppet theater, and he would slide into that frame an illustrated board and read the text from the back of the board. Rather than turn a page, he would slide in the next painted board and so on until the story ended. It was like watching slow-motion T.V.
What’s funny about this is that I always thought Ishida was an African word and storytelling medium. It was only when a Chilean publisher bought the Spanish translation rights for Animal Village, one of my children’s picture books, and asked, in addition, that I also provide a condensed version of the story for Ishida artboards that I learned Ishida was actually a Japanese word and storytelling concept. Popular in post-war Japan when no one could afford or had access to children’s books.
Dr. Cole: I really do want to respond to your earlier question about discovering the possibility of being a writer because one had become a reader. I have many years of age on my dear sister-friend Nelda. And so, I grew up as an African American girl during those, really, really, I’ll use the term wretched, days of legal racial discrimination in a town called Jacksonville in the state of Florida. And so, I went to segregated schools, I had to sit on the back of the bus, I couldn’t eat at the lunch counter in the Woolworth’s five-and-dime store.
But there was something that my parents made sure that I could do. And that is whenever I wanted to; I could go to the library. Now let me tell you the name of the library. It actually bore the name of my great grandfather Abraham Lincoln Lewis. But the full name of the library was the A.L.L. Colored Library. But when I walked into that library, waiting for me after school was my shero, the librarian, one of my mother’s dearest friends, Miss Olga. And she would have a stack of books waiting for me. And though I love chocolate ice cream, and nothing was better than a chocolate ice cream cone, going into that library to get that stack of books was about as good as a chocolate ice cream cone.
That is how I travel the world. That is how I saw the very notion that some people are better than others is really a harmful notion. That is how I could dream about what I would do and what I would become. And something that was so important to me was that in the colored schools that I went to, we received the hand-me-down books when the white children were done with them. And they got new books. And so, the books in my elementary school were all marked up, and pages were torn out. But in the library, Miss Olga made sure that we respected our books. After all, these books were our passports into the world and probably even more significantly into ourselves.
Bianca Schulze: Thank you so much for Miss Olga. I want to hug her for being the librarian for you. Thank you so much for sharing that, Dr. Cole.
So, I want to ask one more question of each of you. And that is, well, let’s start with you, Nelda. What would you say it was that led you to create this book in the sense for children? It is for all ages, but specifically a picture book for children. Why did that feel important to you?
Nelda LaTeef: Well, I think my motivation in creating it is to open hearts and minds and leave the reader with something to think about. My first thought of doing this was because I was an aunt, and I had nephews and nieces. And I thought this would be a great introduction of proverbs to them and introduce them to Africa and what we had experienced over there.
Bianca Schulze: Dr. Cole, so as an anthropologist, well, both of you have a background in anthropology, you have some books that are non-fiction works for adults. But African Proverbs for All Ages is your first children’s book. So, do you have any sentiments on how it was to create this book for children that you’d like to share?
Dr. Coles: Well, I can just say I feel really so, so privileged. It’s an honor for me to be able to do the very first children’s book that I have ever been a part of and to do it with Nelda.
You know, for any of us who wish for a far better tomorrow than we have today, we’ve got to count on our children. They really are the only future that we have. And so, while I’ve written books and edited books for academic and for general audiences, I am really, really, really, really happy to be a part of this very first-ever children’s book. And I can’t let us bring closure without lifting up gratitude to miss Oprah Winfrey, who has given our children’s book of proverbs the first stamp for her book club that any children’s book has ever received. And I do so by adding an African proverb. I don’t think it’s in our book, but the African proverb says: It does no harm to be grateful.
In addition to being intensely grateful to Miss Winfrey, I know Nelda will join me in being really grateful to you, Bianca Schulze, for giving us this opportunity to talk about African Proverbs for All Ages.
Bianca Schulze: It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you both, and I cannot wait for all the readers, old and young, to get their hands on a copy of African Proverbs for All Ages because it truly is going to spark imaginations all over the place. And hopefully, kiddos and their grown-ups will find a way to apply these proverbs in their daily interactions. And so, I am going to shine all of that amazing gratitude that you just sent my way right back at both of you. Thank you, Nelda and Dr. Cole.
Nelda LaTeef: Thank you.
Dr. Cole: And again, thank you.
About the Book
Collected by Johnetta Betsch Cole and Nelda LaTeef
Illustrated by Nelda LaTeef
All Ages | 40 Pages
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press | ISBN-13: 9781250756060
Publisher’s Synopsis: It has been said that a proverb is a short sentence based on long experience.
Whether you are young or old, proverbs can open your mind to a whole new way of seeing the world. We underestimate children when we assume they are incapable of understanding metaphor and deeper meaning. There are multiple ways that children learn, but for each method by which they learn, they need their imagination engaged and their visual sensibilities ignited. And as adults, we underestimate ourselves when we allow our lives to be about practical matters only. Proverbs can stir our soul and spark our imagination. –Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Ph.D. President Emerita of Spelman and Bennett Colleges
In African Proverbs for All Ages, noted anthropologist and educator Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole and award-winning illustrator Nelda La Teef invite children and adults to explore and reflect on complex notions about relationships, identity, society, and the human condition.
A Roaring Brook Press and Oprah Book
Buy the Book
Visit Nelda Lateef at https://www.neldalateef.com/.
National Council of Negro Women: https://ncnw.org/
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Dr. Cole and Nelda LaTeef Discuss African Proverbs for All Ages. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Faith Abraham, Picture Book, and Superhero Books.