This was one of those moments that showcased Niki’s ability not just to understand the world through a child’s eyes – but to delight in it.
Niki Daly, South Africa’s beloved children’s writer and illustrator, passed away on 15 January 2024 at the age of 77.
His legacy includes dozens of books published during his lifetime – from the popular Jamela books to Not so fast, Songolo to The herd boy and to his most recent On my papa’s shoulders. His books were translated into many African languages and were available widely in his home country of South Africa.
Perhaps more important than his books, Niki Daly’s legacy includes his inspiration, mentorship and encouragement of the many people who were fortunate to spend time with him, whether it was a few minutes, a few hours, a few days or a few years. In the United States, we have a saying: “Make hay while the sun shines.” This means that when fortune shines upon you, you should make the best of it. When conditions are good, you should work hard in order to prosper. But Niki Daly was one of those people who made hay whether the sun shone or did not shine, whether he was making hay by creating books or by forging connections and shoring up enduring friendships with others.
I was Niki’s American publisher for his last five books. These included his early reading series: Here comes Lolo; Hooray for Lolo; You’re a star, Lolo and Fly high, Lolo, published by Jacana Media in South Africa with the name Thoko instead of Lolo; and also his final picture book, On my papa’s shoulders, published by NB publishers in South Africa. Like many of us who were involved with him professionally, I wasn’t just his publisher: Niki was also my dear friend.
I met Niki in 2016, when I was first tentatively exploring my decision to launch a publishing company and to focus on African writers. I was travelling with my five-year-old, and Niki and his wife Jude hosted us for an afternoon of tea and biscuits in their garden. While I chatted away, sublimely ignorant of what was happening under my nose, I suddenly noticed a look of guilty pleasure on Niki’s face. He was secretly enjoying something hugely, something that had nothing to do with what I was saying. I snapped to it and discovered that my son was sneaking extra biscuits under the radar while I was preoccupied in conversation. This was one of those moments that showcased Niki’s ability not just to understand the world through a child’s eyes – but to delight in it.
Niki received many honours throughout his lifetime. His books earned him a US Parents’ Choice Award, a Children’s Africana Book Award, a Children’s Literature Choice Award and a Parents’ Choice Silver Award, among many others. Most recently, he was awarded a Skipping Stones Award for his book Fly high, Lolo and a Charlotte Zolotow Award for his final book, On my papa’s shoulders, a beautiful ode to fathers and sons. He has been shortlisted for the Hans Christian Anderson Award and was repeatedly nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Award. But the many honours don’t capture the truth of what Niki Daly did for children in his books. With an enthusiasm bordering on sheer abandon, Niki noticed children and entered into their point of view, their world, their strange and terrible and joyful existence, in a way that few children’s writers and illustrators have ever done. This instinct shone on every page of every book he ever wrote or illustrated. It sparkled in his interactions with children during school and library visits, and in his personal relationships with the children of his neighbourhood, who frequently visited, knowing that they had found a kindred spirit.
Niki lived with his wife, Jude, also an illustrator, in Kleinmond, South Africa, where his two sons Joe and Leo, his daughter-in-law Magriet, and his granddaughter Emily also reside.
We at Catalyst Press were honoured to be one of his many publishers, and we will miss his joy, enthusiasm, creativity and friendship.