One of South Africa’s beloved and largest bookstores Exclusive Books recently found itself involved in a controversial situation after it pulled a children’s coloring book on Palestine From the River to the Sea from its shelves and online store. The bookstore was accused of censorship by customers, organizations, and the illustrator Nathi Ngubane.

Released in February of 2024, From the River to the Sea is published by Social Bandit and marketed as an educational coloring book that provides a gateway into the history of Palestine. Through a series of stunning illustrations, Soweto-based Nathi Ngubane, tackles the injustice of the Nakba, delves into the history and culture of the land, and introduces young readers to the key concepts driving and sustaining Palestinian resistance.

According to South African news website News24, the book was criticized by pro-Israel groups for indoctrinating children in favor of the Palestinian cause. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies specifically had issues with the title of the book, which has often been used as a slogan by activists to garner support for the cause of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank region.

Based on such criticism, Exclusive Books said that it had only temporarily removed the book from its shelves while it reviewed its content. However, pro-Palestinian activists on social media accused Exclusive Books of succumbing to censorship by removing this important book from its shelves and many organizations including PEN SA have criticized this action.

The publisher of the book, Social Bandit, remarked in response, “We urge bookstores to stand on the right side of history. We may not all agree on everything, but we must all reject censorship of any kind.”

According to News24, Exclusive Books has denied that it censors books and Grattan Kirk, CEO of Exclusive Books, added, “The moment we realised it was not offensive, the books were put back on the shelves.”

The book’s illustrator Nathi Ngubane remarked to News24 that his goal with the colouring book was to help children learn empathy and develop political awareness from an early age to combat injustice. Regarding the censorship issue, he said the purpose of the book is to tell the story of Palestine and its struggle for freedom and censoring the book is not the way forward:

It feels as if my freedom of speech is limited. I believe there is a place for content about Palestine in our bookstores. Even if we don’t all agree, we must reject any form of censorship. There is also room for literature that challenges existing opinions. That is the wonderful part of democracy.

While children and their parents in Rafah die, I receive hate messages about a colouring book. How can we draw the line there?

This controversy is really important since we get to see the ways that the African literary space deals with and responds to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Here at Brittle Paper, we are strongly against censorship especially when it comes to protecting the lives and needs of marginalized populations. Many African authors have already spoken out against the violence in Palestine and bookstores need to do better.

According to News24, 4,000 copies of From the River to the Sea have already been sold and more will be printed. Some of the proceeds will go to Penny Appeal SA, a charity organization that assists Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Buy From the River to the Sea here.