Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Africa from a Child's POV (LeAnne Hardy)

In a previous blog I reviewed picture books for introducing children to Africa . Older children are looking for characters they can relate to, children who are like them in some way even though they may be living on the other side of the world. Well-written books, featuring children near their own age, allow readers to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a different culture.

My own book The Wooden Ox (Kregel, 2002) is about a relief and development family kidnapped by rebels during the Mozambican civil war of the 1980s. All the events happened to real people during the years that we lived in the capitol, Maputo, but they didn’t all happen to our family or even to the same people. (Basically, the good things happened to us; the bad things happened to others.) In the story thirteen-year-old Keri and seven-year-old Kurt meet a child soldier called Mfano, ‘boy,’ because his real name has been forgotten. They are befriended by an African pastor whose story of escape is based on the experience of the elderly father of a close Mozambican friend of mine.

AK by Peter Dickinson (Laurel Leaf, 1993) also tells the story of a child soldier in an African civil war, this time in a fictional West African country. Dickinson does not simplify the painful realities of African politics. He uses an interesting technique of two alternative endings that allow readers to discuss what they would like to see happen and what, unfortunately, happens all to often.

In recent years I have been writing for children affected by HIV and AIDS. Beads and Braids (Shuter and Shooter, 2007), about a little girl anticipating the death of her mother, was published as a supplementary reader with limited availability outside South Africa. (Contact me on my website if you are looking for a copy.) Deborah Ellis’ The Heaven Shop, on the other hand, is available in several editions in different countries. Binti’s father runs a brisk business selling coffins until real life catches up with him, and Binti becomes just another AIDS orphan. Ellis traces a typical scenario for one of Africa’s 12 million orphans. (She has also written about Afghanistan under the Taliban and the Pakistan refugee camps in her series beginning with The Breadwinner.)

I am disappointed that Jenny Robson’s Praise Song (Cape Town, Tafelberg, 2005) is not available on Amazon. I think the premise of a teacher being found murdered after telling local teens about AIDS would intrigue American readers. The fitting ending gives me chills. Her futuristic dystopia Savannah 2116 AD, where animal rights take precedence over human rights in an African savannah setting, is available from resellers.

Africa has a rich cultural heritage. I have long been a lover of the tales of King Arthur. Elizabeth Wein’s A Coalition of Lions (New York, Viking, 2002), second volume of a trilogy that begins with The Winter Prince, puts a twist on the traditional story and shows sixth century Ethiopia as more culturally advanced than Europe of the same period. I lived in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Ms Wein’s writing is so convincing it was hard to believe she hadn’t even visited the country until after the book was published. (Great research!)

Modern Africa embraces many cultures, including Westerners living in Africa. Shel Arensen’s Rugendo Rhinos series (Kregel, 2003) is like many series set in North America for the middle grades and “tweens.” Missionary kids in Kenya and their African friends have adventures and stop crime. Readers of this fun series will be begging their parents to move to Africa. While the Kregel edition emphasizes the North American characters, the new Kenyan edition (Word Alive, Nairobi) makes more of the African characters. Of the books I have described here, other than my own The Wooden Ox, these are the only ones with specific Christian messages.

The world has grown much smaller, and modern American young people may well have classmates who were born in Africa or elsewhere. Memories of Sun, edited by Jane Kurtz ( New York, Greenwillow, 2002) is a collection of short stories and poems by authors from both continents. Aimed at middle schoolers, it describes life in various African countries and some of the experiences and impressions of Americans in Africa and Africans in America.

There is no shortage of non-fiction books in the Africa section of your library or bookstore. Here are some of my favorites:

African Beginnings by James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, with paintings by Floyd Cooper, is the beginning of a series aimed at African Americans. This first volume describes the various cultures from which the ancestors of modern African Americans came. The text combines with gorgeous art to show the rich heritage of the continent before Europeans arrived.

When Hippo Was Hairy and other Tales from Africa by Nick Greaves (Struik, 1989) combines animal folktales with beautiful paintings and information about the animals’ habitat, breeding, diet, etc. I have seen children pick it up for the pictures, be drawn in by the stories and consume the information. Other books in the series include When Lion Could Fly, When Elephant Was King, etc.

Few people have had as great an impact on Africa as Nelson Mandela—son of a Thembu chief, lawyer, activist, political prisoner and eventually the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Floyd Cooper emphasizes Mandela’s childhood, his early training, and his commitment to stand for what he believed was right in the children’s biography, Mandela (Philomel, 1996). The format is picture book, but the content will be better understood by school-age children.  Cooper’s trademark use of light and dark in the illustrations bring to life the faces of Mandela and his colleagues.

Sadly, several of these books are out of print.  They are only available second-hand.  Well-written books about Africa for young people allow children with African ancestors to revel in their heritage. They expose children of European ancestry to the beauty of a world different from their own. They stretch all of us who don't live in Africa beyond our every-day world.

I would love to hear from you about other books about Africa you have enjoyed and recommend for young people.


  1. I haven't actually come across all of these books, but will be on the look out. I'm so glad you included Shel Arenses'n books- he gave our girls a copy of each as they were published and they are in tatters from being read and re-read. They are spot-on regarding what it is like to grow up as a white person in Kenya.
    I enjoyed this review, I'm off to re-read the Rugendo Rhinos for starters!!

  2. I agree, the Arensen books are so much fun! I haven't yet read the new Kenyan editions, but I'm so glad they are being made available in Africa.

  3. LeAnne, fascinating post! Thanks for sharing your reviews of African children's books :-)

  4. I to enjoyed the post and the books sound interesting. I dont know of any books either but would be good to see more as I think they would be good for children of other countries.