Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Africa in Picture Books by LeAnne Hardy

Every day is an adventure for young children exploring their world.  Stories set in other cultures can introduce curious children to the world beyond their own doorstep.  It might be a story about an ethnic community in their own country, or about children on the far side of the world.

A good story starts with something with which the reader can identify, and moves on to something new that stretches a child’s thinking.  Picture books illustrate the culture visually at the same time that the text invites the child to identify with children whose lives may be very different.

My own children grew up in Africa.  Over the years we have collected books that show the African experience in positive ways.  In this blog I would like to share favorite picture books of Africa.  In a future blog I will share juvenile fiction that can give an older child a feel for African life.

In the comments section, I would love to hear your thoughts on these books and recommendations of others for introducing young children to African culture.

Alphabet and counting books:

Ashanti to Zulu; African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (1976).  New York, Dial.
                        Beautiful, if somewhat idealized, illustrations represent twenty-six African cultures with brief paragraphs of text in this Caldecott Award winner.

From Akebu to Zapotec; a Book of Bibleless Peoples, by June Hathersmith; illustrations by Alice Roder (2002).  Orlando, Wycliffe Bible Translators.
                        Twenty-six ethnic groups that lack the Bible in their language are featured with colorful illustrations and short accounts of their culture, emphasizing what it is like to be a child in that group.   A map of the world locates each tribe.  Like it’s companion book From Arapesh to Zuni, this makes a great prayer guide for family worship.

Jambo Means Hello; a Swahili Alphabet Book by Muriel Feelings, illustrated by Tom Feelings (1974).    New York, Dial.
                        Soft black ink and white tempera illustrations accompany a Swahili word and cultural information for every letter of the alphabet.

We All Went on Safari; a Counting Journey through Tanzania  by Laurie Krebs, illustrated by Julia Cairns (2003).  Cambridge, MA, Barefoot.
                        Spend a day with a Maasai clan in their bright red wraps as they count African animals.  Additional pages give information about the animals and the Maasai culture of Tanzania.

Emeka’s Gift; an African Counting Story, by Ifeoma Onyefulu (1995).  London, Francis Lincoln.
                        This book works on a variety of levels: a simple counting book, a pleasant story about a boy searching for a gift for his grandmother, and an introduction to Nigerian culture. The colorful photographs will appeal to both African and non-African readers.  Sidebars contain additional cultural information.

Stories of African children:

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain; a Nandi Tale by Verna Aardmea, illustrated by Beatiz Vidal (1981).    New York, Dial.
                        This cumulative rhyme in the tradition of “The House that Jack Built” tells how a Kenyan herdsman caused the rains to begin.  The text sings.

Fire on the Mountain by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (1994).  New York, Simon and Schuster.
                        This story of a clever young shepherd boy and his sister outwitting a dishonest rich man is a retelling of a traditional tale.  The illustrations give an authentic glimpse of the rich culture of Ethiopia where the author grew up.

Goal! By Mina Javaherbin (2010)  Candlewick.
South African township kids have to protect their regulation soccer ball (football, as it is called locally) from bullies in order to feel the freedom of play. The artist uses perspective to give variety to what could have been a drab slum setting.

Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Brown (1994).  Candlewick.
Handa prepares a basket of fruit to take to her friend in a neighboring Kenyan village, but unseen by Handa, various animals steal the fruit before a goat butts a tree and refills Handa's basket with something unexpected.

Limpopo Lullaby by Jane Jolly, illustrated by Dee Huxley (2006).   Simple Read Books.
                        My grown children will identify with Leroy and Aimee for there was nothing they enjoyed more when the long Mozambican dry season ended than to play in the rain. But in this story the rain doesn't stop and the children must be rescued by helicopter.  Delightful pastel illustrations with expressive faces. Based on actual events in 2000, this could be frightening or confusing to very young children.

The Most Important Gift of All by David Conway, illustrated by Karin Littlewood (2006)
                        Lovely watercolors of African village life.  Ama goes looking for the important gift called 'love' to give her new baby brother and finds it when her father comes looking for her.

Muktar and the Camels by Janet Graber (2009).  Holt.
                        A Somali orphan in a Kenyan orphanage dreams of the nomadic life with camels he has lost until the "Bookmobile" arrives on the backs of three camels.  Beautiful pictures and satisfying ending.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe (1987).  New York, Lothrop, Lee and Shepherd.
                        Two sisters with different temperaments travel to the capital, each hoping to be chosen as the king’s wife.  Spectacular illustrations show the well-known ruins of Great Zimbabwe as the site of the king’s city.

So That’s What God is Like by LeAnne Hardy, illustrated by Janet Wilson (2004).  Grand Rapids, Kregel.
                        Janet Wilson’s beautiful paintings bordered in the style of Zulu beadwork illuminate my text about Biblical images of God and show off the African cultural setting.

When Africa Was Home by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (1991).  New York, Orchard.
                        My own daughters strongly identified with this book about a family missing Africa when they have returned to the United States.

So what books do you recommend for introducing young children to African culture?

LeAnne Hardy is the author of six books for children and young adults, set in a variety of cultures.  She lists many more books about Africa on her Goodreads site.


  1. LeAnne, thanks for sharing your comprehensive list of children's books about Africa. They sound like fascinating reads that my kids would enjoy :-)

  2. I love picture books and having two little grandchildren gives me a good excuse to read them!

    I recommend:
    Handa's Hen (the sequel to Handa's Surprise)by Eileen Browne. This is a cheerful counting book with a surprise ending and it depicts village life in beautiful colour.

    Lulama's Long Way Home by Marjorie van Heerden. This is a delightful book which will have the little ones in fits of laughter as Lulami encounters different wild animals on her way home after being snatched up by a fish eagle.

    I taught preschool for several years and every year I read Handa's Surprise (originally titled Senzeni's Surprise) to my class when we talked about fruit. We acted out the book several times and also made our own illustrations for the book. We all loved it.

  3. I love Lulama's Long Way Home! The only reason I left it off is because it isn't on Amazon. But it is a great read-aloud. I haven't tried acting out Handa's Surprise. That's a great idea. I'll have to look for Handa's Hen.