Maretha Maartens is an Afrikaans children’s author writing about the plight of Adam in The Ink Bird. It is always difficult to cross gender, color, and generational lines when writing. Maartens has done a believable job and created a character who, upon the death of his father is suddenly saddled with the support of his younger siblings and pregnant mother who births twins (Jacob and Esau) in the course of the story.
Maarten’s attempts to describe township life concentrate more on the inner fears and turmoils of a young boy, of being harassed by bullies and not being able to keep his job selling newspapers, rather than the more embittering issues of discrimination. Ink Bird, sometimes translated Paper Bird, was published in Afrikaans in 1989, during the death throes of apartheid. The English translation is adequate and the level is well suited for 9-12 year olds. She describes poverty issues very well, but lacks emphasis on the significance of the colour divide in contributing to it. Adam does not noticeably struggle with colour-based questions: but other books with children that age are wrestling with “why?” and “why us blacks?”
Life as a newspaper boy, standing at intersections to sell papers to drivers stopped for traffic lights is chaotic and chancy. This is still part of the South African scene, but now most of the vendors are adults. The narrow economic survival margin is a good example of the extreme effort one must put out for minimal payback. Maartens does a good job illustrating the uncertainties of this tenuous existence.
The title is a metaphor using the ubiquitous newspapers which sometimes seem to take wings and fly across the road--sometimes landing on windscreens. It has powerful possibilities as an image. But Adam does not dream with it, nor imaging flying free of his township. It is a stillborn metaphor.
As a starting point to explain apartheid, this book is useful for children, but it does not go far enough. At a crucial moment in time, Adam falls ill and is taken care of by an elderly coloured vendor, who sells his papers for him and saves the money for him. This is a feel-good, “God’s in his heaven” element, almost unbelievable. Maartens does clearly speak out against the degradation of poverty, but without reminding her child readers what the ugly, invisible backdrop is.