Diversity Window, Mirror, or Neither?

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?

 

18 Comments

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18 responses to “Diversity Window, Mirror, or Neither?

  1. I think sometimes reading is a prism–it lets the light through and then it breaks it up and scatters it so the reader has to work a little harder to make sense of it all. Some people don’t like that, but it’s very good for us. The best books take that thing called cultural diversity and complicate it in just this manner. I think the Atinuke books do that, and it’s perfectly wonderful.

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  2. KT Horning

    We asked Atinuke about this when she was here, and she said she intentionally chose to use Africa instead of specifying her native land, Nigeria, because Anna Hibiscus’s stories would resonate with children in many parts of Africa, and she didn’t want to want to limit the them by being specific to one place. She wanted children in other parts of the world to know this was what life was like for many children in Africa. (Plus she loves heaving them read “amazing Africa.”)

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  3. I’ve been thinking about these same issues with regard to books that represent Quakers. (There are not very many, besides the old and rather dreadful Thee Hannah and Brinton Turkle’s Obadiah books.) Anyway, the thing i like about the Turkle books is that the Quaker kids are kids first and Quakers second. They are windows and mirrors, but also good stories with a Nantucket setting.
    So your post was helpful.

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  4. I love your thoughts here. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Anna Hibiscus books too, but I did find it curious that the specific country where she lived is never mentioned — particularly in light of the frustrations I’ve seen vented about Africa-being-a-continent-not-a-country and many westerners’ lack of appreciation for cultural differences between African countries. Yet at the same time I loved the universal aspect of the Anna Hibiscus books — they don’t shy away from cultural differences, but at the same time celebrate the universality of childhood.

    Would you be interested in linking up this post with the Diverse Children’s Books Link-up? You can find it at http://pagesandmargins.wordpress.com/2016/05/21/diverse-childrens-books-link-up-3/. Thanks!

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  5. Edi

    I think I’m going to be the outlier here. I’d like to ask if anyone would have written about about Anna in Europe, or would they place her in Italy or Portugal or Sweden because they know the countries are so very different? The Nigerian culture is apparent to those who know it, but for too many others it perpetuates the myth that Africa is a country. This problem extends beyond literature. My 7th grade teacher admitted he knew nothing about Africa so, he has us outline the textbooks. Even here on campus, I hear faculty members refer to Africa rather then the specific country they’re traveling to or researching. Authors giving identity to specific countries helps us learn about Nigeria or Chad or Swaziland. Contexualizing a culture is empowering.

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    • By and large I agree with you, Edi, as I too am troubled by the limited knowledge in the US about Africa. But I also think we are coming from our particular place— that our community is unfamiliar with Atinuke’s setting. But would it be necessary for her to indicate that it is Lagos if the audience is Nigerian? And if (as KT says) she is thinking of a pan-Africa audience is it necessary for her to be explicit? Indeed, the setting felt incredibly familiar to me having lived in Sierra Leone and my impression that is what she intended. She wasn’t writing it firstly for those unfamiliar with the setting, but for those for whom it would be familiar. And so, I’m just not sure it is her responsibility to educate the part of her audience (Americans) who don’t know much about Africa. I would feel differently if she wasn’t of the culture, but she is and has very consciously done this.

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    • Edi, I do see your point. But from the writer’s viewpoint here is a writer with roots in the place she is writing of, who made a specific choice for specific reasons. I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately–it relates to the question of who it is we write for. I am given courage by the magnificent Toni Morrison who points out that Tolstoy did not write for her. That is also why we need many books about many places around the world. The problem is not this or that choice that a particular writer made. It’s the fact that one writer’s work is often seen as sufficient to represent an entire region. At the other end, it’s also a problem when an insider writer’s work is seen as not “authentic” enough because s/he has chosen not to insert some expected cultural markers–in this case it’s the name of a country. It’s complicated.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Marjorie

    This is such an interesting discussion… and so nuanced. It makes me wonder about cultural vs. national boundaries – for example, here in the UK, if we are travelling abroud, we might very well say we are going to Africa, South America, Asia – and that doesn’t mean we don’t have a particular destination in mind. We would probably say the European country a book was set in – but is that actually enough, if there is the need to go down that road? – it’s a convenient definer to identify a book as set in Italy, for example, but actually Sicilian, Venetian, Sardininan, Tuscan, Calabrian etc…. all these areas have very definite individual cultures. The same can be said of the US, but a book set in the US might only say that and only from reading it would you know it was New York or Texas… My feeling is that as long as the book is finely tuned in what it does represent, and doesn’t stereotype, it doesn’t necessarily have to pinpoint its location… As Uma says, sometimes it’s good for the reader to have to work at it a little!

    Thank you for sharing this with the #diversekidlit linkup!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great consciousness raising post and discussion! I’m going to be thinking about this (yes, it is complicated) and looking at my own work with an extra eye. I hadn’t been thinking of a window as much as a mirror with an agenda.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nancy Rust

    I appreciate the question in this blog and the discussion that it encourages. I think the best diversity in literature is both – a mirror and a window. The mirror allows the reader to connect with the character, and the window shows a greater world and possibilities. If the greater world is exciting enough, the reader may explore further. Isn’t further exploration exciting and enlightening? I think the best books arouse curiosity and allow connections.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. gotmybook2

    I linked to this post in my Sunday Summary this week.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Mirrors? Windows? How About Prisms? | Uma Krishnaswami

  11. debbiereese

    I think my post about Alexie’s pan Indian picture book, THUNDER BOY, is relevant to the discussion. It works well for insiders but for outsiders who are ignorant of Native peoples, it is of great concern because people are using it to move to a “pick your Indian name” activity. For now, it definitely needs an Author’s Note about naming traditions amongst Native peoples. Here’s my post:

    http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2016/05/towards-common-understanding-of-native.html

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