In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reading about the family compound

Dear Annie,

Today I sent off tens of thousands of dollars' worth of orders for kids' books for a new store that we'll be opening in a few weeks in Virginia.  It's so much fun to go through lists of all the books our current stores have sold recently and try to shape a new book section based on books I like.  One of the joys of the job.

Another joy is finding, in the midst of many many sample books, a gem of a new book.  This weekend I discovered Anna Hibiscus, by a Nigerian-born storyteller named Atinuke. (She currently lives in Wales.)  It's an early chapter book with a lovely lilting tone about a girl who lives in an unnamed African city.  Her extended family lives in a compound where the grandparents are revered, where most of the grown-ups have cellphones and commute to their jobs, and where a young child faces universal challenges figuring out what the world is like. 

Anna's father grew up in this family; Anna's mother is from Canada.
    One day, Anna's mother told the family that in Canada she grew up in a house with only her mother and her father.
   "What?" cried Auntie Grace.  "All alone?  Only the three of you?"
   "Yes, and I had a room all of my own," Anna's mother said wistfully.
   Anna's grandmother looked at her.  "Dey make you sleep alone?" she asked.
   "It was not a punishment," Anna's mother said.  "It was a good thing to have my own room."
   Anna Hibiscus and her cousins looked at each other.  Imagine!  Sleeping alone.  Alone in the dark!
   "Nobody likes to sleep alone," said Anna's grandmother.
   Anna Hibiscus laid her warm brown cheek on her mother's white arm.  "Don't worry, Mama," she said.  "You have all of us now.  You will never be alone again."
Anna's mother yearns for a little more solitude, so the nuclear family of Anna's parents, Anna, and her twin baby brothers goes off to the seaside by themselves.  Chaos ensues, and slowly relatives from the city compound arrive to lighten the load and cheer everyone up.

In another chapter, Auntie Comfort is coming to visit from America.  The family worries that she has forgotten the African ways, so with the help of her Uncle Tunde, Anna sneaks off to send some text messages to America.  Comfort arrives satisfyingly African:
Although the question of what is African is debatable:
   "Welcome, Comfort!" Grandfather said.
   "Thank you, Father," Auntie Comfort replied.  "But I am now called Yemisi."
   "Why?" said Grandmother.  "What is wrong with Comfort?"
   "I wanted to have an African name, Mama," said Auntie Comfort.
   The aunties started to laugh.
   "Comfort is an African name," said Grandmother.
   "But it is an English word, Mama," said Auntie Comfort.
   "It is an English word, but an African name," said Grandfather.  "Have you ever heard of any English person being called Comfort?  Come, enough of this.  Let us eat."
The gentle sense of humor reminds me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, done for the under-eight crowd.  (Smith has a lovely early chapter book series set in a wildlife sanctuary in Africa, but I'll save that one for another day.)  Several of the stories  have Anna wanting to push the boundaries of behavior (I won't fix my hair, I want to sell oranges on the street) and while the parental generation tries to stop her, the grandparents let her go ahead, and take the consequences.  The lesson learned in the orange chapter has to do with understanding that she is a child of a prosperous family and other children must work hard to live.

So far there are two Anna Hibiscus books out in the U.S.  It wouldn't surprise me to see more. 



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