Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Books for African Children

I invited LeAnne Hardy to guest blog here today after I found the following video on her website. It's about 20 minutes long, but very eye-opening.

LeAnne: Nigerian novelist and short-story writer Chimamanda (above video) talks about growing up in Africa reading English and American books. In them children ate apples instead of mangos, played in the snow and talked about the weather. It was only much later that she realized that she could write a different story—one that reflected the Africa she knew.

I, too, write about Africa. My first published fiction was The Wooden Ox, a juvenile novel about an American family kidnapped by rebels in the Mozambican civil war that was going on when we lived there in the 1980s. In many ways the story was my way of dealing emotionally with six years of being surrounded by war. I did my best to portray the struggles of the African pastor, a child soldier and the rebel commander and his family realistically and sympathetically, but in the end, the intended audience was North American.

So That's What God is Like is a picture book set in Africa. Temba asks his granny what God is like, and she responds with Biblical images of God that can be seen in their African context. I chose the African setting in part because it was what I knew, but in many ways African culture is much closer to Biblical culture than anything we know in the developed world. It was also my first attempt to offer African children positive stories of themselves. Beautifully illustrated by Canadian Janet Wilson, the African edition of So That's What God is Like is due to be released by Word Alive Publications, Nairobi, Kenya, early in 2010.

African orphans have too often been told a single story—one about how worthless they are. No one wants them; they may even be carriers of a dread disease—AIDS. They need to hear stories that show their lives as valuable, their experiences worth telling. They need books that make them say, "That’s just like me!" and let them know that the skill of reading is not just for blue-eyed blonds who play in the snow.

My South Africa-published book, Beads and Braids, tells the story of two cousins in a family affected by HIV who must learn to work together. Other books in the Key Reader series tell engaging stories that show child-headed households, orphans adjusting to new situations and the necessity of taking ARVs on time.

I have just returned from two weeks reading stories in township daycare centers and after-school programs for orphans and vulnerable children. During the three years that I lived in Johannesburg from 2005 to 2008, I went to the library each week to find read-alouds and easy to read stories that would hold the attention of children as old as 14. Their English is weak; their reading skills are under-developed, but they are not babies. The more they enjoy books, the more they will practice and improve their skills. The better they read, the better they will do in school, and the better the future they will have to look forward to.

"How do you find books that show Africa?" my Zimbabwean friend once asked me. South African libraries are getting better at serving non-white communities, but it still takes some sorting. When my librarians found out what I was doing, they sometimes set aside books they thought would interest me. I combed bookstores and reveled in the Cape Town International Book Fair.

Besides the stories that I read aloud, I brought a bin of donated books. After the group time, we had free reading. I invited kids to read aloud to me. Sometimes their skills were so poor that we "read together," the child repeating the word a split second behind me. The little ones just looked at the pictures, but they were anxious to jabber at me in local languages about what they saw there. It was enough for them that books be a positive experience.

When a white pre-school teacher donated a box of books that she wasn't using, I debated long and hard about whether or not to include the European folk tales with their white-skinned heroes and princesses with long blond hair. But most of them were in easy reading formats, so I let them stay. The most popular book in the box after that? Cinderella—the story of an abused orphan who grows up to marry someone rich and powerful.

Maybe it is my library background that drove me to start a page on Goodreads, a social networking site centered around books. There I review books I recommend (or don't recommend) for African township children. I call it Lindiwe's List after the main character in Beads and Braids. My dream is that others who work with children affected by HIV would open their own Goodreads sites, write their own reviews of books I have listed and add new books they have discovered.

I write for African children because they need to know that their lives are worth writing about. I read with African children because I want to help redefine their stories. I want to affirm their capabilities and say, "I believe in you. You have the ability to grow into a responsible, self-reliant adult."

When our visas expired in 2008 and we returned to the U.S. to live, I spoke to a women's group at our church. While I talked, I set my computer to run a slideshow of "my" kids.

"They’re smiling," one woman said, surprise in her voice. "The only African children we ever see are sitting in the dirt with flies in their eyes." That woman knew no other story of Africa than one of poverty, hunger and war.

I'm thankful that the kids to whom I read wouldn't recognize themselves in that story. Neither would Chimamanda Adichie.

LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her six published books for young people reflect various cultures she has experienced. She currently lives in the Northwoods of Wisconsin where she is working on a sequel to Glastonbury Tor between blogs and travel.


  1. LeAnne, Thank you for your Inspiring post. My current work in progress is set in Uganda. Chimamanda Adichie's talk has had a powerful effect on me both as a writer and as a reader. I don't think I will read or write the same way again. It's encouraging to see more books about the real Africa being published. Not English or American versions.

  2. What a wonderful story. I can't imagine not having books in my life.

  3. Great post. Hearing about Africa is a real eye-opener, glad you're making such a difference!

  4. Sorry, I was traveling when this came out. Noela, I will look forward to your WIP. Have you lived in Uganda? What made you choose that setting?

  5. A pleasure to read about some of the positives of Africa. My church is raising money for an organisation in Malawi running orphanages for Aid-afflicted children. Also a church and school in Sierra Leone - the minister Joseph was in Paris for a year and I had the privilege of knowing him for the last few months of his stay. I help out with the Fair Trade Stall to aid these causes. The most practical I get!