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.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amazing Africa

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Fascinating short essays by Adam Gidwitz.  I like what he says about some of the reasons for the violence in fairy tales:

Fairy tales—the original ones—are violent. Is this okay for today’s child?
I think it is. I’d go further: I think it’s good. Physical pain is something that children understand and can cope with. They have felt it and survived it. They know it will pass. Other kinds of pain—a parent’s abandonment, emotional abuse—are much more difficult for the child to bear, or even to imagine. What fairy tales do is put physical pain in the place of emotional pain, blood in the place of tears.

Right now I'm reading The Magician's Book, which you mentioned a little while ago in a post, and which my dad just finished and loved.  It's really good -- very readable, and extremely thoughtful about the ways in which children's literature (not only C.S. Lewis) works.  I'll write more about it when I finish.  

We're just back from a mini-vacation, and one of the books we brought with us to the indoor water park (kids' world, with all its attendant joys and frustrations) was one of your recent gifts to Eleanor: Atinuke's book Anna HibiscusYou wrote about many of the joys of this little chapter book: the large, close-knit family, the gentle humor, the mixture of the modern and traditional that characterize contemporary African life.  And then there are the amazing names: Anna has cousins named Benz, Wonderful, Miracle, Sweetheart, Chocolate, Joy, Clarity, and Common Sense.  Along with these excellent qualities, I'm finding Anna Hibiscus to be a useful and interesting way to begin talking with Eleanor about poverty.

In "Anna Hibiscus Sells Oranges," Anna decides she's bored hanging out with the little cousins at home.  She decides to join the girls who stand outside the gate of her family's compound and sell oranges and plantains each day:

Those girls shouted and screamed and laughed and talked to everybody.  They ran after passing cars for money held out of opened windows.  They fought off goats who ate the plantains.  They chased off children who stole the oranges.  The girls at the gate did not have to play boring games with little cousins all day long.  They were busy with the whole city.  Those girls did not look bored.

It's a great description, capturing both Anna's romanticized view of the life of the orange sellers and the actual details of their hard work.  She sees them, she just doesn't understand what their lives are really like.  So Anna takes the oranges off the trees in her family's compound, and sells all of them in a day, because her oranges are fresh, and she is clean and fresh-looking as well.  The orange selling girls don't make any money, and that evening some of them go home crying.  After her uncles and grandfather talk about the details of these girls' lives and their poverty, Anna starts to make the connection, and feels terrible.  Her grandfather is soft-spoken, but serious: "People will be hungry tonight, Anna Hibiscus, because of what you have done."  The next morning, instead of making Anna give her money directly to the girls, Grandfather tells her she will work for the girls all day.  He walks her back and forth to the market, where she buys oranges for the girls to sell.  The girls make extra money because they don't have to go to the market to refill their baskets, and Anna learns what it feels like to work for a day.  It feels real, but not too heavy-handed.  How do you talk in a real way about poverty to a three-year-old who has never known any substantial lack?  It's good to have a story to work with as Eleanor starts to have some sense of the world around her. 

Before I leave Africa, I want to mention a book that my sister-in-law, the amazing Aunt Grace, brought Eleanor last year from a trip to South Africa, where she and Michael are living this year.  Hot Hippo, by Mwenye Hadithi, illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway, is a gem of a book.  It's an origin story, clearly the answer to Why do hippos live in the river, when they look like land animals?  Simply: Hippo was hot.  He yearns to live in the river, so he goes to speak to Ngai, "the god of Everything and Everywhere."  Ngai, shown as a great face in a dark mountain, thunders down at Hippo that he cannot live in the water because he would "EAT ALL MY LITTLE FISHES!"  (It's fun to read Ngai's voice.")  Hippo promises to open his mouth wide, so Ngai can see there are no fish there, and to stir up the water with his tail, so Ngai can see Hippo has not hidden any fish bones.  Ngai relents, and Hippo happily splashes in the water: "And he sank like a stone, because he couldn't swim."  But he runs along the river bottom, as hippos do, and looks quite endearing in Kennaway's watercolor illustrations.  This seems to be part of a series; I'd like to find the others, too.

Love, Annie

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