I love a good piece of multicultural children’s fiction and am delighted today to share three novels set in contemporary Africa that present non-stereotypical portraits of this immensely-varied continent. The stories are set in three regions seldom spotlighted in children’s literature – Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast).
These novels accommodate a broad swath of ages. I’ll start with the one appropriate for the youngest audience:
The Fastest Boy in the World, written by Elizabeth Laird, illustrated by Peter Bailey published in 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books 158 pages
Solomon is 11 years old, or thereabouts. He lives in the cool highlands of Ethiopia, 20 miles from the capital, Addis Ababa, with his Ma, Abba (father), small sister Konjit, and his revered, dignified, Grandfather, a man of few words.
The thing you must know about Solomon is that he loves to run. His nation is a nation of runners, slender, mighty marathoners who have won gold medals in Olympics competitions for generations. These runners are the heroes of the country, the superstars, and Solomon has in mind to join their ranks.
One day, quite unexpectedly, Grandfather announces he’s got an errand in Addis Ababa and wants to take Solomon with him. What can it be that would take Grandfather there? For Solomon, it’s tremendously exciting, but while in this strange city Grandfather collapses. It’s up to Solomon’s sturdy runner’s legs to fetch the help they need.
Perfectly paced, with joys, tensions, yearnings, fears, and triumphs for characters we immediately care about, this is a warm, engaging chapter book that could be read aloud to children ages 5 or 6, or independently at a few years older. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to seek out more of Laird’s work.
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, by Katherine Rundell published in 2011 in Great Britain; 2014 in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 246 pages
Will – that’s the name she much prefers to her given name, Wilhelmina – lives an immensely wild, wind-borne life on a farm in Zimbabwe. Gazelle-fast, baobab-sturdy, free as air, tough as elephant hide, content so long as she’s cartwheeling through life with her best friend, Simon, and her dear father.
Then, shatteringly, Will’s life is up-ended when her father dies, and the callous woman partially responsible for his death glides in to occupy Will’s home, packing her off to the incongruous, cold, walled-in, backbiting world of an English boarding school. Where her schoolmates are far crueler than a thornbush. Where Will is impossibly forlorn, painfully squeezed into a culture that doesn’t fit.
There’s only one thing to do: make a run for it.
This is one of the best books I’ve read for a long time. I couldn’t put it down. Rundell’s language, her innovative, piercing juxtaposition of words, and her ability to capture the ethos of Will’s life in rural Zimbabwe, are stunning. Her characters wrapped themselves around my heart in a speedy minute. How I love that fierce wildcat, Will.
In addition, the unflinching, visceral portrayal of the shock of a new culture is critically important reading for anyone who has either experienced it first hand or has a close relationship to a third-culture kid. Highly recommended for ages 10 to adult.
The Bitter Side of Sweet, by Tara Sullivan published in 2016 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons 300 pages
Amadou, age 15, and his little brother Seydou, were tricked.
With little to eat in their local Ivoirian village, the two of them boarded a bus, the boss men promising they’d be taken where they could earn a bit of money, find food for themselves.
That was years ago. Their actual destination: a remote cacao plantation where they have been enslaved ever since, brutally forced to harvest, prepare, and ship the cocoa beans worth so much money to the wealthy, corrupt businessmen at the top of the food chain. Attempts at escape have only resulted in more heinous beatings.
Now, strangely, a young girl has been brought to the camp. First girl. First time a worker has arrived on her own rather than in a busload. She doesn’t look like, act like, talk like someone from rural Ivory Coast. Yet she’s fighting like a wild boar for her freedom.
Tara Sullivan has crafted a tense, brutal, shocking story in order to shed light on the horrifying-yet-common practice of using child-slave labor to produce the chocolate that you and I enjoy as a soothing pleasure. While the end of the book reads a bit more like an exposé than a novel, the subject matter demands our attention and Sullivan grabs that, no kidding, in this story of three young kids, fighting back with everything they’ve got. Ages 15 to adult.