The Representation of Africa in Children’s Books

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Africa is changing all the time: new countries are being created and old traditions are being swallowed up.
(Africa Amazing Africa by Atinuke)

This blog is going to look at children’s books set in Africa.  When I started I was quite nervous. As a well-educated forty-something, I have realised that my knowledge of this vast and varied continent is limited to; memories from childhood of Live Aid and the release of Nelson Mandela, a student trip to Egypt, Botswana through the eyes of Alexander McCall Smith’s literary creation ‘Mama Ramotswe’, and more recently Comic Relief vignettes of projects across the continent.  I realised how little I know about this fascinating continent that has been colonised by seven European powers – Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy – and had many of its countries used as proxies in the Cold War. It consists of 54 countries with over 600 languages spoken. The Sahara Desert is the World’s largest desert and the USA, China, India and Argentina could all fit in Africa. It was in Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast of Northwest Africa, that the Arab Spring wave of protests and civil unrest that swept the Arab world started.

It is a continent marked by great disparities; poverty, prosperity, abundant resources, conflict and peace.  There is a mix of religious beliefs from traditional African religions to Islam and Christianity. The advent of mobile technology has impacted the continent. 

The Economist back in 2017 noted:
In 2016 two-fifths of people in sub-Saharan Africa had mobile phones…Yet in much of the continent people with mobile phones outnumber those with electricity, never mind that many have to walk for miles to get signal or recharge their phones’ batteries. 

It has given a vital connection to the outside world as well as the ability to access financial services such as personal bank accounts.   Africa is not just vast swathes of countryside. There are many cities in Africa from Lagos with a population in 2019 of over 21 million people to Cairo to Harare and many, many more. There is no universal experience, there is no one Africa but many. 

In light of this, where do you start when introducing your pupils or own children to childhoods in African settings? I was daunted and so I enlisted the help of Dr Alice Curry the founder and CEO of the award-winning Lantana Publishing.  Lantana specialises in bringing to print inclusive books that celebrate our difference – whatever that may be.  Alice says that she founded Lantana in order to make sure her mixed-race nephew, Ryan, was going to grow up reading books in which the characters looked like him. 

Here is what Alice had to say to my questions regarding children’s books set in Africa:

Huge congratulations for winning the Children’s Africana Book Award (CABA). Please explain the importance/ significance of the award generally and what it particularly means to you at Lantana?

Thank you! It meant a great deal to us. Not only was it the first award we received for one of our books (and our very first book at that!), but it is also an award whose values we wholeheartedly share since it promotes an ‘accurate, balanced’ portrayal of Africa. Both Nnedi Okorafor (author of ‘Chicken in the Kitchen’) and Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl (author of ‘Sing to the Moon’) were passionate about reflecting contemporary life. ‘Chicken in the Kitchen’ is set in a relatively affluent suburb of Lagos, where satellite dishes can be spotted on some of the houses, and where people wear a combination of jeans and T-shirts and traditional dress. In ‘Sing to the Moon’, a little boy and his grandfather experience a typical day near the Mountains of the Moon in Western Uganda, where the weather is often misty and rainy and can be quite chilly – very different from the image of Africa we usually conjure up!

As publishers with a passion for diversity do you actively seek to feature a range of experiences/ cultures/ places or is your overriding criteria for selection to pick great stories?

It always has to be about the story, first and foremost, or else we will lose our readers’ trust.  After that, we look for stories in which children from under-represented backgrounds can find themselves and feel a sense of belonging, and this more often than not will mean we select stories portraying a range of cultures, experiences, places, to reflect the diversity of our population.  We want to open up the world to young readers and make the children’s book landscape as inclusive as we can.

Reflecting on the recent controversy with the publication American Dirt and issues of cultural appropriation, if a children’s book is set in Africa then, in your opinion, how important is it that the author and/ or illustrator is African or has at least lived in Africa?

I judge this on a case-by-case basis. The vast majority of our books are #ownvoices since we often tell very personal stories that are specific to a particular author’s lived experiences. However, we wouldn’t point blank refuse an inclusive story that is thoroughly researched, sensitively written and whose author can make a compelling case for why they are the right person to tell it. To take an example, Amariah Rauscher, the illustrator of one of our upcoming books, ‘Sunday Rain’, is white American, yet she is married to an African American man and her children are mixed-race, so her preference is to draw biracial children in the books she illustrates. So while she doesn’t share her children’s ethnicity, I doubt anyone would argue that she doesn’t have the experience, or the right, to extend her portrayal of children in books to include those with roots in Africa.

Atinuke’s Amazing Africa provides children with information about the continent in all its diversity but often books relay a particular experience in a particular place. Given limited budgets what advice can you give regarding the range of books a school stocks so that they don’t inadvertently create the impression of an archetypal African childhood?

One of the reasons contemporary books about Africa often relay particular experiences in particular places (as ours do) is to avoid the damaging impression that ‘Africa is a country’, frequently portrayed in older books (and unfortunately some contemporary ones too) in which non-specific landscapes and generic marketplace scenes give a homogenous impression of the continent. In light of this, I’d suggest a good breadth of fiction and non-fiction that together give an impression of the varied landscapes, geographies, peoples, languages and cultures across northern and southern Africa, as one might when compiling a collection of books about Europe.

In your experience what is the best way to ensure representation without creating otherness?

If a story helps children walk in someone else’s shoes, or enables them to share universal emotions or experiences like laughter or surprise, then it shouldn’t matter how different the cultural or geographic context of that book is – there will still be recognition and empathy.

What advice would you give to time-poor teachers who are aware of their own inadequacies around cultures and settings other than their own?

I’d say that being aware of their own inadequacies is likely to ensure they approach the topic sensitively and accurately and that a little research can go a long way towards making one feel comfortable with broaching a less familiar topic. I’d also suggest reaching out to the author of any book they choose to work with because more often than not authors are delighted to engage with readers about their writing (time allowing of course).

Why is it important that children learn about childhood experiences elsewhere in the world?

If you will allow me to refer your readers to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful TED talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ she will answer that question far better than I can: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

Thanks to Alice’s insights,  I certainly feel better informed and have pathways to pursue to increase my knowledge and confidence.  

The best book and honour books of current and previous CABA awards are a great way to start to select books on Africa as you can be confident of their accuracy and balance.  They can be accessed as a list and clicking on the book title allows you to see a description and some book reviews. 

Just Imagine has also curated an Africa Book Collection taking the advice of Alice to heart and featuring many CABA winners.  As well as books published by Lantana, it also includes amongst others:

  • Atinuke’s Africa Amazing Africa described by The Guardian Review as a gorgeous walkthrough of all its countries, celebrating the history, languages and culture of the continent. Mouni Feddag’s explosive illustrations are sun-drenched and filled with heady colour 
  • Wangari Maathai : The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prévot is a picture book biography of Kenyan environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai.
  • The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi (soon to be included in Just Imagine’s Take One Book) in which, publishers say, the author echoes the oral storytelling tradition in this inspiring tale from the history of the Yao people.  
  • Grandad Mandela by Zazi, Ziwelene and Zindzi Mandela is a delightful book in which Nelson Mandela’s two great-grandchildren ask their grandmother fifteen questions about the life of their great-grandad – freedom fighter, prisoner, President and Nobel Peace Prize-winner.  This also features in The Reading Journey along with Tales from Africa by K.P. Kojo.

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Let us help you and your class to appreciate the wonder, nuance and diversity of this extraordinary continent.

…Gather round, my people, gather round! And hear the voices of your ancestors in this tale of courage and of sacrifice.

(The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi)