Well, we got moving with some Africa related books. I thought I’d do two posts and write about the resources I’m finding most useful. First up, chapter books and middle grades books about Africa.
Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke
I found these many months ago but decided to hold on to them for a little while. For a long time, they weren’t widely available in the US, but they’ve finally seemed to get a wider distribution and more people seem to know about them. This is an easy chapter book series about a girl, Anna Hibiscus, living in “amazing Africa.” The language, while simple and accessible for early readers, is lovely. Simple drawings of Anna and her family are on most pages. Each book in the series has a series of chapters that are essentially short stories. Anna’s adventures are easy for kids to connect with as she wants to see snow, is afraid to go off to school for the first time, gets performance anxiety and finds her little brothers annoying. However, they’re also uniquely African as Anna gives kids a peek into a world of extended families under one roof, African hairstyles, and African foods and customs. Anna’s family is clearly middle class and planted in the modern world, with texting, cars and tall buildings, not to mention international family members. These four little books give kids a window into African life. By the way, Atinuke has another series about rural Africa called The No. 1 Car Spotter, which is just as excellent.
Akimbo series by Alexander McCall Smith
This series recently went out of print, which is a shame, since there are so few books like them. These are also a series of short chapter books, but with fewer illustrations and a slightly harder reading level. While BalletBoy could read these, he would have read them slowly, so we just read them aloud. The series follows Akimbo, a young boy in southern Africa. His father works on a reserve, which gives Akimbo ample time to interact with animals and protect them from poachers. Reading these (as well as the author’s other series for children), it struck me that while they’re all good, the storytelling and the language doesn’t quite reach the lovely level that his adult books manage. It’s always interesting to see how writers adapt their work for different ages. Parents should know that the books have a good dose of danger for books intended for young readers. The poachers and some of the animal threats felt very real and scary for Mushroom as we read aloud.
Bulu: The African Wonder Dog by Dick Houston
This is a middle grades nonfiction book about a dog in Zambia. It’s a variety of book which I wish there were more of and which I’m excited to connect with more – popular nonfiction books for middle grades readers. I know of a few, but not many. This is our current read aloud. I skimmed ahead a ways in, but I haven’t quite finished it yet, I’ll admit. The story follows Bulu and his owners, Anna and Steve, who move from the UK to the Zambian bush to connect with the wildlife and build a nature center for children. Bulu helps them rescue animals and warn them of poachers and dangers. Pet dogs apparently aren’t common in the bush because of the dangers to a small animal, but Bulu defies the odds in his adventurous life. The story is told much like a fiction book and I’m enjoying the real life feel to everything that happens.
Journey to Jo’berg by Beverly Naidoo
After reading this short middle grades novel, I decided it was probably too much for my boys, but I think it could be perfect in a couple years. Naidoo wrote this book near the end of the era of Apartheid, about a brother and sister who have lived a relatively sheltered, if impoverished life, in a rural village. When their baby sister becomes sick, Naledi and Tiro decide to walk, take buses, cars and trains and find help from strangers as they make their way to Jo’berg to find their mother, who works as a maid to a white family there. The story is firmly a children’s story told from a child’s perspective, but Naledi and Tiro spend the book learning about complicated injustices on their journey. They see the police beat people and witness a baby die. They learn to pay attention to the signs that separate whites and blacks as well as to question the rules. Another character, Grace, tells them a story about riots in Soweto, which contains even more violence than the children themselves witness. The book is beautifully written with an ending that is tinged with hope, but I felt like the content needed to wait for a couple of years. I would say it’s for ages nine and up.
The Ear, The Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
This was another book that I thought was too much and too complicated for Mushroom and BalletBoy, but it’s a book I really love that I think gives an unusual insight into Africa. The story takes place in the future in Zimbabwe. Three siblings are kidnapped, escape, then must have a set of harrowing adventures, including a trip to a sort of otherworldly African village, before they can make their way home. Farmer sets up an imaginative world and raises questions about technology, traditions, gender and poverty in this coming of age science fiction story. It’s an interesting book that really defies categorization.