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Africa For Kids

July 19, 1998|SUSAN SCHILLING | Susan Schilling lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and two children and works in the educational software industry. Her essay is provided exclusively to Book Review by the Five Owls, a bi-monthly magazine that encourages literacy and reading among young people. For a copy of the Five Owls, send $1 for postage and handling to the Five Owls, 2004 Sheridan Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN 55405

Fifteen years ago when my husband and I decided to raise our children bilingually as one way to be closer to their African heritage, we wrote home to Kenya to get children's books to read to them. The good news was that we received some in the mail. The bad news is that they were all books that taught beginning Kiswahill and not the kind of story books for which I had hoped. What a wonderful eye-opener it is today to have the same need and be able to fill it by going to a nearby library or bookstore.

And an eye-opener it is, in the true sense. The first thing my daughter and I comment on when opening a new book is the power of the pictures. Almost without exception, the illustrations and graphical images in recent children's books about and from Africa are bright and vibrant and fairly call out to be taken from the shelf. Many of the artists are Africans, presenting their unique and distinctive works, or artists who are immersed in a variety of African artistic styles. Similarly, the authors and storytellers either are from the continent or have had experience with the continent and its people that has left an indelible mark on them.

Yes, Africa has many stories to tell, and they are finally becoming accessible. We found books from many countries on the continent--Zaire, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya.

Two stories attempt to highlight the similarities of family life between Western cultures and African cultures. "A Country Far Away," by Nigel Gray and illustrated by Philippe Dupasquier, shows an African boy wondering what life would be like in Western Europe, side by side with the story of a Western European boy wondering what life would be like on the continent of Africa. The essential similarities between the lives of the two boys are drawn out through the pictures, as are the striking differences.

A slightly different twist is taken with Karen Lynn Williams' "When Africa Was Home," illustrated by Floyd Cooper. In this story, Peter, a small white child, feels alien when his family returns to America. He can't wait to go back to Africa, the only home he has ever known, where he ran free with his friends. Cooper's luminescent paintings enable readers to feel the warmth of the sun and the warm sand on his feet as he runs to greet his African family at the book's end. These two books provide a good way for American children to make an easy connection to the children in Africa.

The books that captivate my daughter and me the most are those, however, that tell the stories of Africa. "Bury My Bones but Keep My Words," retold by Tony Fairman, includes not only several tales from across Africa but also storytelling hints. As Fairman points out, a tale in a book is like a drum in a museum. These are stories that must be told. Many of them can be read by younger children, but their power comes alive in the telling. For anyone willing to try, this book is a good place to start. After learning a few things about how to tell stories aloud, start in on the wonderful set of picture books that retell the myths and legends of different people and groups all across Africa.

As my family and I started to read and talk about these stories, it became clear that we were being presented with a totally different set of values than those preached to us by our traditional Disney experience. "It Takes a Village" by Jane Cowen-Fletcher builds on the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child." The value of community is clear as Kokou wanders off when his sister is supposed to be watching him. My 6-year-old daughter was concerned about him as we turned the pages. "It must be important for everyone to feel responsible for raising a child," she said when it was all over. Message received.

In many ways, "Chinye," a story from the Igbo group in Nigeria retold by Obi Onyefulu, has a familiar story line. The young girl in this story suffers unfairness at the hands of her stepmother and stepsister and is befriended by the animals and a magical older woman. Young listeners will surely think of Cinderella. The difference is that Chinye doesn't focus on the value of romance but, rather, on the value of goodness and the negative consequences of greed.

A Swahili folk tale, "Imani in the Belly," retold by Deborah A. Newton Chocolate and illustrated by Alex Boies, highlights the values of working collaboratively, of looking to ancestors for guidance and of having courage and faith--the Swahili word imani.

The tortoise, though slow-moving, seems to have made his way across the entire continent of Africa. In the Igbo story "The Flying Tortoise" by Tololwa Mollel, illustrated by Barbara Spurll, Mbeku, the tortoise, tricks the birds into providing him with a big feast. But when he tries to trick them a second time, he's the one who gets fooled.

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