I am overdue writing this post about the remarkable, amazing, and wonderful Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke. After reading Betsy’s review last summer I requested the books and fell completely and totally in love with them. Since then I’ve been delighted to see others in America become equally smitten, say the folks over at Horn Book who have just given two in the series well-deserved stars. My special thanks to reviewer and teacher Robin Smith who just now reminded me of them as she mentioned them on the ccbc-net discussion list as exemplars for raising issues of economic differences for children.
For those still unfamiliar with this charming series, the books are from the point of view of a young biracial child, Anna Hibiscus who lives in “… Africa. Amazing Africa.” In each of these early chapter books mostly set in an unnamed city, professional storyteller Atinuke gently, authentically, and lyrically strings together a series of episodes that present life for one extended Nigerian family. There are threads tying each set of stories together — Anna’s anxiety about having to sing in front of an important audience or her visit with her Canadian grandmother — but it is the individual little stories that make these books so powerful.
Having lived and taught in Sierra Leone I’m fairly obsessed with bringing material to American children that communicate an authentic viewpoint of life in West Africa. While she does not identify Anna’s home country, author Atinuke’s background is Nigerian and I can only say that what she describes rings true to me from my own experience a few countries to the west. (I’m going back to Sierra Leone this summer for the first time which will be quite an experience!) Like Robin, I too admire Atinuke’s deft handling of the class and economic issues that are familiar to me from my time in West Africa.
I’ve heard some complaining about the author’s decision not to identify Anna’s home country and I have to say I disagree. The choice to begin each story with a lyrical storytelling trope — that Anna lives in “amazing Africa” is lovely and clearly an artistic choice. Yes, some Americans have trouble understanding that the continent of Africa is not a country, but that doesn’t mean every book written for children and set in Africa must identify the country in order for American children to get the right idea. Even without naming the country, Atinuke does one of the best jobs I’ve seen giving a feel and sense of what life is like for one West African child. And because of that I’m looking forward to her new series, The No. 1 Car Spotter, this one from the point of view of a young boy living in an African village.