In her author’s note, Efua Traore, explains how she always longed to see Nigerian myths and folktales ‘transported into books for children’. The House of Shells has certainly been immortalised in its beautifully woven tale, the myth of the ‘Abiku’; the spirit child that plagues cursed families.
We join our protagonist, Kuki, as she is fast approaching her thirteenth birthday. Kuki’s mother has found a new husband, Dr D and they now live with him in his house. Her mother, Grace, is heavily pregnant and they are watched over by Dr D’s overprotective sister, Bisola. Kuki is short for Kukomo, meaning ‘this one will not die’. The intensity of the meaning of Kuki’s name has never really been a burden for her as like her mother, she does not believe in superstitions. Bisola, on the other hand, does and prefers Kuki to wear juju amulets to protect her against the wicked Abiku spirits.
Starting her new school has not gone very well for Kuki. She hates it and has been ostracised by the other young people. Namely, Moji, the ringleader in her class who coerces Kuki into doing tasks for her including her homework tasks. The other young people in her class follow Moji’s lead. All this disruption and unhappiness gets to Kuki and on her birthday she decides to seek solace in a walk through Lekki’s hinterland. The stroll leads her to discover an old, ruined mansion set far back from rusty gates. Kuki, courageous and strong Kuki we grow to know and love throughout the story decides to explore the ruins and she meets the small, thin Enilo, a girl around Kuki’s age but all bones and angular features. Their friendship ensues and they both challenge each other to overcome each of their greatest challenges and fears. Enilo’s greatest challenge is to preserve her last ‘heart crumb’, the last heart crumb from her life as an ‘Abiku!’
The House of Shells has been such an exciting narrative to explore. It weaves and turns in ways the reader does not expect and through the mythical world of the book, young people can explore key themes in their lives: friendship, loyalty, good vs evil, identity, bullying and family. Kuki is a complex protagonist forced to have her perceptions and beliefs challenged and at times to act out of character. She encounters issues young people face and the reader has the chance in this story to travel alongside her, unravelling the complexities with her. The symbolism of puberty cannot be missed and this tale provides an intriguing conduit for discussion and exploration. It also provides a great adventure with some creepy moments dotted through.
A definite for any Upper KS2 classroom and Lower KS3. A great addition to the myths and folklore section of a school library or class library.
Longlisted for the UKLA 2024 Book Award 7-10 fiction category
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