BY THE BOOK: Jennie 'Shi' Marima


What you need to know:

  • She makes easy going videos about books, writing and everything in between on Shi Scribbles
  • "Spend time with your target readers. They are often generous with unfiltered information. Listen"

Jennie ‘Shi’ Marima, a young Kenyan author, has published a number of storybooks, such as, Trio Troubles, which won the 2019 Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in the Children’s category and Just This Once, which made the 2017 finalist for the Burt Award for Young Adult Literature.

She makes easy going videos about books, writing and everything in between on Shi Scribbles.

Her other books include The High Road, Super Sara and the Lost Baby, Rundo the Elephant, among others, all available at and in all leading book stores.

What are the two most memorable books you have read so far, and what makes them so?
The first one is My Special Hair by Candice Dingwall. Hair is a subject close to my heart. To see it rendered so creatively gave me goose bumps.

The other one is Bringing the Rainto Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema. It is simply flawless.

How many books on average do you read in a year, and do you have a favourite spot where you read them from?

(Looking shamefaced) I do not read as much as I ought to... When it is a particularly hard read, I have to find a very quiet place. Easy reads can be devoured anywhere: in restaurants, waiting rooms, on commutes….

Which is your most favourite genre of books? Any reason?

That’s definitely Children and Young Adult Literature. When well-told, these stories preserve a certain innocence that I connect with.

What is the size of your book collection as of now? Where do you get them from and what motivates you to?

Honestly, I have never counted. I have many of my books loaned out. I prefer to buy than borrow because I like to scribble my reactions in the book.

Interestingly, if a book that I had borrowed turns out boring, I am usually so glad that I didn’t spend my hard earned money on it.

Which are your two most treasured books and why? Do you normally lend them out? Why do you or don’t you lend them?

A Wreath for Udomo by Peter Abrahams was intoxicating. Someone borrowed the only precious copy that had been in our family library for years. (tears up) I also love all the novels, short stories and plays by Maeve Binchy, a great Irish author.

By the way, I used to think that for writing to be competent, it had to be ‘difficult’– like some of the books people rave on about...

Reading her books gave me the permission to stop trying to ‘impress’ and instead endeavour to be sincere. I have resorted to hiding some of her titles to keep non-returners at bay.

If you were to become any character from any of your books, which one would you choose and why?

I’d be Nimo from my book Trio Troubles. I love how she evolved from an annoying pre-teen to a force.

If you had an opportunity to meet three great authors, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

If the question said ‘storytellers’, then I would say Marc Cherry, Shonda Rhimes, Peter Nowalk, Sarah Koenig, Ira Glass and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Fortunately, all of these are phenomenal storytellers in their different platforms: TV, film, radio and books.

If you were to recommend three books to a 10-year-old, which ones would they be and why?

Trio Troubles, not because I wrote it (half-truth detected) and it won an award (truth) but because it is such a fun read. Then there is My Giant Lollipop Tree by Sheila Bosire and Nimeshindwa Tena by Ken Walibora.

They both left such an impression.

Have you ever had a bad commentary about your writing? What did it say and how did you deal with it?

I appreciate feedback because it gives me an opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t. I always accommodate feedback that is reasonable. That said, the reviewing process is very subjective and it is impossible to meet every reader’s expectations.

After giving a story all there is to give, I let it go and let the chips fall where they may.

What are your thoughts on the appreciation of Children’s Literature in Kenya?

It is probably the most consumed genre because it is a school requirement.

It is, however, exciting to see the growing number of people either looking to write or to purchase children’s books. It makes me feel like I am playing in an important space in the grand scheme of all things ‘lit’.

E-books versus hard copies, what is your preference and why?

While I appreciate the ease in distribution that comes with e-books, I prefer hard copy books. Most of my working life is spent staring into some form of screen. Hard copy books are a refreshing break from that.

Young Adult Literature or Children’s Literature, what is your preference and why?
This is impossible to answer as I gladly dabble in both. They are my comfort zones. Perhaps my pen needs to venture out more into the perilous world of grown-ups.

What was your last book that you read and how did you find it?

Diary of the Miaha by Verah Omwocha-Dinda. I read it as a manuscript and when the book came out, I gobbled it all up again. A writer after my own heart is all I can say for now.

Young adults in Kenya majorly read school set books and textbooks, and rarely read other creative books, why this trend? How can it be changed?

We need to model for them that reading for leisure is not only relaxing but also has countless other benefits. We (the adults) need to get off our screens and read. I suspect they will follow suit…

If you weren’t an author, what would you be?

If I were not doing the writing-related things that I do, I would probably be a kindergarten teacher. I think it would be fun to hang around with kids…

What piece of advice would you wish all aspiring children’s authors to keep in mind?
Spend time with your target readers. They are often generous with unfiltered information. Listen.

This way, you will not be writing what you think they need to read but stories in which they can see themselves, and have their realities and aspirations validated.