Recently someone told me they didn’t like the lack of mention of Africa in Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia. Since the continent is mentioned in the opening (“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.”), my guess is the complaint was really about the lack of specification of a country. Yet, this is how (to the best of my knowledge) all of Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus books begin. It is a storyteller’s trope, a purposeful and lyrical story introduction. Indeed, the author is a professional storyteller as well as someone with a similar background to Anna, a biracial individual who spent her early years in amazing Africa, more specifically Nigeria. I am a huge, huge fan of these books — they are full of simple yet rich stories of Anna’s life with her white Canadian mother and her black Nigerian father, mostly in their urban African home. While Nigeria isn’t specified in the books, the food, the experiences, and so forth are coming from Atinuke’s personal experience and thoughtfully and accurately visualized by white illustrator Tobias.
What I’ve been brooding about is why it would be necessary to identify the country in these books. Are they windows into a different culture, mirrors for children of that culture, or are they simply stories that happen to be set somewhere else? For me, the chapter books do indeed provide a delightful, authentic, and real view of one small piece of Africa — both windows and mirrors for young readers. Windows for those far from Nigeria, for whom this is a somewhat different way of living. I’ve enthusiastically recommended them for those looking for good books set in Africa. But they are also mirrors, both for children of Anna’s background as well as other children her age who are experiencing the same sorts of ups and downs of life that she is in different environments.
Earlier this year I was teaching my annual unit on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I read aloud the initial chapters from the first Anna Hibiscus chapter book as well as some picture books by other authors set in present day Africa, wanting my students to have a sense of the continent today, not just historical in terms of our studies. However, Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus! wasn’t among them as I considered it not a book about Nigeria or Africa, but a book about a little girl coping with twin baby brothers. That the situation happens to take place in Africa, that it is resolved by extended family, is secondary. The pleasure is in the relatable experience of being a single older sister to some rambunctious baby twin brothers.
This has me thinking — when is a reading a window? When is it a mirror? When is it one or the other or both depending on the reader’s circumstances?