We adults know, of course, that Africa is a continent, not a country. Also that it is diverse, full of real people and places that are varied and distinct. We know of its beauty and of its harshness. And perhaps most of all, we adults are highly aware of its complicated historical relationship with North America. Helping American young people reach a similar understanding of the real Africa is as important as it is challenging. It can be tricky when their toys, visits to zoos and theme parks, viewings of movies and television shows, and other encounters leave them with a romanticized sense of exotic animals, unfamiliar cultural practices, and rural settings. Older children may learn of horrific conflicts, dreadful illness, and dire poverty. While books are not a panacea, and some unfortunately only reinforce the same tired stereotypes, others exist that dispel misunderstandings and help children gain a deeper sense of that landmass called Africa.
The distortions begin with animals. From a very young age, American children are exposed to Africa almost exclusively through its fauna — in ABC and concept books, in cartoons, in toys, in Broadway shows…the list goes on. Stories full of appealing lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and other popular African animals make it easy for young readers to assume that wherever they go on the continent, there those animals will be (Rachel Isadora’s Old Mikamba Had a Farm being a recent example).
Readers may find picture-book folktales to be more region-specific and thus less likely to promote stereotypes. The famous trickster spider Anansi hails from West Africa, for example, as do the creatures in Verna Aardema’s retelling of Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears. The Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa is the setting for Marilyn Nelson’s original tale Ostrich and Lark, beautifully illustrated by members of Botswana’s Kuru Art Project.
Helpful as folktales can be for dispelling the image of Africa as one big, undifferentiated game park, they need to be considered carefully. Whether featuring animals or people, retellings are often adjusted for an American child audience, and original tales, while inspired by aspects of the continent, are not necessarily accurate. Patricia McKissack, for instance, thinking about those family members left behind by Africans who endured the Middle Passage, created a powerful original folktale in Never Forgotten; however, in it the coastal Mende are confused with a different group from the Sahal. John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, an original work based on a tale in a late-nineteenth-century folktale collection, has been rightly lauded for its extra-ordinary art; unfortunately, some people, unaware that it is not an authentic folktale of Zimbabwe, recommend it for cross-cultural Cinderella units.
Best of all are folktales provided by those native to the continent. Baba Wagué Diakité, originally from Mali, retells stories he first learned from his grandmother in their village of Kassaro. In The Magic Gourd, for example, he brings a traditional Bamana tale to life with vivid language and illustrations, followed up with substantive back matter including a glossary, a translation of the song of praise from the story, information about the mud cloth patterns used in the art, and a bit about his own rural childhood.
Diakité is also the illustrator of the picture book I Lost My Tooth in Africa, written by his daughter Penda when she was eight. It is an excellent choice for moving young readers beyond the timeless sensibility of animal stories and folktales toward a view of contemporary West African life. Penda and her younger sister Amina travel from their American home to visit their father’s family in Bamako, where Amina loses her tooth and follows local tradition by putting it under a basket, waiting for a chicken to appear. The text and art make it easy for young American readers to relate to these two girls as they enjoy their visit to their Malian relatives — and get a chicken! Gently and accessibly, the two Diakités make their Mali real.
Another African who successfully captures everyday life for those with no connections to the continent is Nigerian photojournalist Ifeoma Onyefulu. Some of her short and simple books tightly focus on such universal experiences as a haircut or first day of school. Others celebrate specific cultural practices, many of them based on the author’s own childhood. For example, in My Grandfather Is a Magician Onyefulu draws on her own memories of her grandfather to highlight the practices of a village healer.
Given the plethora of books set in villages, another potential misunderstanding is that most Africans live traditional rural lives, when in fact forty percent of Africans live in urban areas. How refreshing to encounter Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus, a biracial child who lives in an urban “Africa. Amazing Africa.” In chapter books and picture books, the Nigerian-born Atinuke gently and lyrically presents life for a solidly middle-class family, highlighting experiences that help Anna (and the reader) to subtly appreciate differences. In one of the most powerful stories in the first chapter book, Anna becomes envious of the shabbily dressed but lively city girls selling oranges outside her family’s compound and decides she is going to do the same. She picks some oranges from her own tree and then sets up business next to the city girls. Since her oranges look far more appealing than the others’ smaller market-bought ones, she quickly sells out. It takes Anna’s wise grandfather to help her understand that by outselling the city girls, she causes them to go home without money their families desperately need. Silently Anna atones for this, and she and the readers learn an important lesson.
Similar in age to Anna, Akissi, in Marguerite Abouet’s graphic novel of the same name, is quite a bit wilder. While some aspects of Akissi’s life in the Ivory Coast will be familiar to young American readers — her contentious relationship with her big brother, say — others will not. The exuberant Akissi catches her brother and his friends roasting a couple of pigeons they have killed, her pet monkey almost ends up as someone’s dinner, and — probably most unfamiliar of all to American children — she must cope with tapeworms. Lively, earthy, and very funny, this is another great choice to help children get a deeper sense of real African children.
Even as African books for our youngest readers can seem disproportionately centered on animals, those for older children can seem overly focused on war, famine, sickness, and other miseries. While these books inform readers and encourage compassion, the byproduct can be the unfortunate sense that the main stories of Africa are those of tragedy. Nevertheless, the best of these take young readers beyond their immediate and understandable sense of concern to a deeper awareness of the complicated factors behind the harshness. Eliot Schrefer’s YA novel Endangered is centered on the harrowing odyssey of a young girl and a young bonobo making their way through the war-torn landscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Schrefer deftly and sensitively presents the varied people of this suffering country, both good and bad, attempting to make sense out of a seemingly senseless conflict. Another example is Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, a fictionalized telling of Salva Dut’s real and harrowing trek across war-torn Sudan in 1985 as a member of the group that became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. And in her historical novel A Girl Called Problem, Katie Quirk succeeds at communicating the challenging life of a rural Tanzanian girl and her severely depressed mother who in 1962 relocate with their fellow villagers at the behest of President Nyerere to practice the collective farming he called ujamaa.
Finally, the most difficult topic of all: the transatlantic slave trade. Understandably, the bulk of books for American children on this subject focus on what happened on this side of the ocean; however, there are a handful that do consider what happened in Africa. One for younger readers already mentioned is McKissack’s Never Forgotten and another is Margot Theis Raven’s Circle Unbroken, a picture book about how a particular method of basketry was brought from West Africa and sustained into the present by the Gullah of Georgia and South Carolina. For older readers there is The Kidnapped Prince, Ann Cameron’s adaptation of a portion of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography of which the first part is set in West Africa; and Joyce Hansen’s work of historical fiction, The Captive, about the enslavement of a young Ashanti royal.
A recent book for older readers that powerfully addresses this topic is Trevor Getz’s Abina and the Important Men, illustrated by Liz Clarke. Unabashedly didactic, conceived as it was as a teaching resource, it is worth seeking out. The first section consists of a graphic novel based on an 1876 court transcript of an attempt by Abina, a young West African woman in what is now Ghana, to convince the “important men” of the court (jury, judge, lawyers, etc.) that she is a free woman, not enslaved. For while slavery was officially illegal, in reality it was perpetuated by wealthy men who needed the workers in order to supply palm oil to Europe. After the story told in comics is the actual court transcript and then a series of essays in which the author provides historical context and unpacks the many troubling elements of the event, including, “Whose Story Is This,” “Is This a ‘True’ Story,” and “Is This ‘Authentic’ History?” It is a unique and superb work that encourages young readers to think hard about the difficult history of enslaved Africans.
Difficult. Confounding. That can be the situation for Americans of all ages when contemplating Africa. Despite the growing ease with which we can communicate with one another throughout the world, our understanding can still be a limited one. Take the concept, already mentioned, that Africa is a continent, not a country. Of course we know that, but do we also all know that many of the continent’s countries were carved out by Europeans during the colonial era, making ethnic identity more relevant than national identity for most Africans? Or that our familiarity with lions and elephants is the result of non-Africans like Theodore Roosevelt coming back to America from big-game hunting expeditions? As evidenced by the books discussed here, there are publishers, writers, and illustrators producing books that help American children better understand this very real place so different from their own, but more are needed. More that grapple with historical and contemporary political complexities, more that broaden awareness of animals and people together, more that feature kids like Anna and Akissi, and, most of all, more by Africans themselves.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale (Dial, 1975) by Verna Aardema; illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon
Akissi (Flying Eye, 2013) by Marguerite Abouet; trans. from the French by J. Taboy; illus. by Mathieu Sapin
Anna Hibiscus (Kane Miller, 2010) by Atinuke; illus. by Lauren Tobia
Splash, Anna Hibiscus! (Kane Miller, 2013) by Atinuke; illus. by Lauren Tobia
I Lost My Tooth in Africa (Scholastic, 2006) by Penda Diakité; illus. by Baba Wagué Diakité
The Magic Gourd (Scholastic, 2003) by Baba Wagué Diakité
Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad (Candlewick, 2013) by Monica Edinger; illus. by Robert Byrd
The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano (Knopf, 1995) by Olaudah Equiano; adapted by Ann Cameron
Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (Oxford University, 2012) by Trevor Getz; illus. by Liz Clarke
The Captive (Scholastic, 1994) by Joyce Hansen
Old Mikamba Had a Farm (Paulsen/Penguin, 2013) by Rachel Isadora
Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972) by Gerald McDermott
Never Forgotten (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2011) by Patricia C. McKissack; illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon
Ostrich and Lark (Boyds Mills, 2012) by Marilyn Nelson; illus. by San artists of the Kuru Art Project of Botswana
My Grandfather Is a Magician: Work and Wisdom in an African Village (Frances Lincoln, 1998) by Ifeoma Onyefulu
A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story (Clarion, 2010) by Linda Sue Park
A Girl Called Problem (Eerdmans, 2013) by Katie Quirk
Circle Unbroken: The Story of a Basket and Its People (Farrar, 2004) by Margot Theis Raven; illus. by E. B. Lewis
Endangered (Scholastic, 2012) by Eliot Schrefer
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale (Lothrop/Morrow, 1987) by John Steptoe
From the January/February 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.