As we continue our way through the vast continent of Africa, I’m recommending a book that counters an unhelpful perspective, which is to discuss Africa as though it were a country.
Too often in various collections, stories are listed from, say, Japan, Brazil, Poland… and Africa. Of course, these are not equivalents.
Africa is really, really big.
Africa is huge. Maps like this one help us get perspective on just how large it is.
And Africa is incredibly diverse. When we lived in West Africa many years ago, our home was near the Sahel. My kids grew tired of American children asking what it was like to live near lions, or in the jungle.
Actually what it looks like where we lived. No lions. No jungle.
This massive, diverse, and misunderstood continent deserves better! One of my favorite books treats just this topic and it comes highly recommended as a starting point for this portion of our tour:
Africa is Not a Country, written by Margy Burns Knight and Mark Melnicove, illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien
published in 2000 by Millbrook Press
Take a quick hovercraft tour of the continent visiting markedly different cultures, peoples, and settings from an urban family in Eritrea to a family living among the snowy mountains in Lesotho; schoolgirls in uniforms on the busy streets of Cairo, and islanders on Cape Verde farming the steep hillsides. Tantalizing paragraphs give just a glimpse of the local culture while warm, colorful illustrations show us the look of life in each unique location.
Back pages list every country on the continent with a little tidbit of information about it. This book is nearing 20 years old so there will be some outdated facts but for the most part it is a fabulous introduction to the continent. Ages 4 and up.
Now let’s tour East Africa!
Trouble, written by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Durga Bernhard
published in 1997 by Harcourt Brace & Co.
Tekleh is a little boy who always seems to find trouble, from kicking up dust onto the roasting coffee beans to losing track of the family’s goats.
His father thinks a new gebeta board (you probably know this as mancala) will keep Tekleh busy and thus keep him out of trouble. But he has no idea the wild series of events that gebeta board will instigate! This delightful tale takes us through the hillsides of Eritrea introducing lovely bits of the culture there through Tekleh’s encounters. Wonderful illustrations fill in a great deal of cultural detail as well and an afterword tells more about this relatively new country. Fantastic, for ages 3 and up.
Ethiopian Voices: Tsion’s Life, written by Stacy Bellward, photographs by Erlend Berge
published in 2008 by Amharic Kids
This photo-essay of a young girl named Tsion, age 11, might not be easy for you to find but I love it for its realism and warm portrait of family life in contemporary Ethiopia.
Tsion and her family live in Kechene, a slum in Addis Ababa. She describes her community as kind and very friendly, and tells us about her family, home, neighborhood, Ethiopian Orthodox traditions, school, food, and the special places in Ethiopia she’d love to visit. Accompanied by excellent photographs, this is a fascinating, wonderful window into her world for ages 4 and up.
The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela: A Tale from Africa, written by Cristina Kessler, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins
published in 2006 by Holiday House
Sitting at over 5,000 feet in the Ethiopian mountains, Lalibela is renowned for its incredible, rock-hewn churches and its honey. Wouldn’t I love to visit! Meet Almaz, a young girl who longs to be one of the Lalibela beekeepers. In fact, she wants to make the best honey of all.
But beekeeping is traditionally a man’s work and Almaz is met with scorn. A wise Orthodox priest opens the way for her to pursue her dreams, and Almaz’s tenacity and inventiveness win her success and respect in the marketplace. Fascinating story with mixed media illustrations that reveal the sun-soaked beauty of Ethiopia and her people. Ages 3 and up.
Only a Pigeon, written by Jane and Christopher Kurtz, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
published in 1997 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, a young boy named Ondu-ahlem lives with his loving family, but little else. Life is immensely enriched, though, by his pet pigeons. Ondu-ahlem cares for them diligently, guarding them from a hungry mongoose, tenderly feeding an orphaned chick, admiring the bravery and speed of his favorite bird, Chinkay. Ondu-ahlem and his friend have a game in which, at a set location, they each release one bird, then try coaxing their own bird plus the other bird, back home. The winner gets to keep his buddy’s pigeon. When your favorite bird is at stake, it’s quite a nerve-wracking event.
Both of the authors grew up in Ethiopia and their affection for the land and people glows in this lovely story. E. B. Lewis brings it all to life with evocative, sun-dappled illustrations. An intriguing Author’s Note tells more about pigeons and the raising of them by Ethiopian boys. Ages 4 and up.
The Fastest Boy in the World, written by Elizabeth Laird takes place in the highlands of Ethiopia and the capital city of Addis Ababa. It’s a great little read emphasizing the adoration the Ethiopian people have for the sport of running. You can read my review here.
Muktar and the Camels, written by Janet Graber, illustrated by Scott Mack
published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company
Muktar lives in a Kenyan orphanage throughout this story, but his childhood memories are of Somalia. In those early years, before drought and war engulfed his homeland, Muktar and his family lived a nomadic life there with their camels, and oh! how he longs for that. Working with camels is what life is all about for him.
When a visiting librarian comes from Garissa, Kenya, with loads of books strapped to the backs of a train of camels, Muktar’s deep knowledge of these beasts, passed down to him from his father, ends of saving the day. In return, Muktar’s wildest dreams really do come true.
A rare glimpse of the desert north of Kenya and Somali refugee children, beautifully illustrated, for ages 4 and up.
Beatrice’s Dream: A Story of Kibera Slum, written by Karen Lynn Williams, photographs by Wendy Stone
published in 2011 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Millions of children live in urban slums, vast enclaves of desperate poverty in some of our largest global cities. Yet there are very few books about their lives among the multicultural titles for children.
I am so pleased to acquaint you with this title which spotlights a 13-year-old girl living in one of the largest, most infamous slums in the world, the Kibera Slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The author and illustrator have used great care to portray Beatrice with dignity, with hopes, dreams, and routines to which your children can relate. It’s an immensely important window into tremendously challenging living conditions that can be shared with children ages 4 or 5 and older.
Only the Mountains Do Not Move: A Maasai Story of Culture and Conservation, written and photographed by Jan Reynolds
published in 2011 by Lee & Low Books
The Maasai are perhaps the ethnic group in Kenya who appear most often in children’s literature. Their colorful red cloaks and intriguing lives as cattle-herding nomads lend themselves well to that, I guess.
This photo essay brings us into the everyday lives of one group of Maasai in northern Kenya. Enter their community, learn about their homes, chores, and the way their lives revolve around herds of cattle and goats. Reynolds uses this story to explore, too, how deforestation and climate change impact the Maasai way of life as well as the land and wildlife in East Africa. That sounds like a lot, but it’s presented in a way easily accessible to kids ages 7 and up.
Planting the Trees of Kenya, reviewed here
Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, reviewed here
are both beautiful accounts of the Nobel-prize winning Kenyan woman and her reforestation efforts in Kenya.
Beatrice’s Goat, written by Page McBrier, illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter
published in 2001 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
In the rolling hills of Uganda, in a small village called Kisinga, a little girl named Beatrice lives with her mom, brothers, and sisters.
As subsistence farmers who must carry water, hoe the fields, grind cassava flour, tend the chickens, life is a series of daily chores for Beatrice and her family which means that school — that enticing place where children learn such interesting things — is out of reach.
Until one goat changes everything. Discover life in rural Uganda and learn about the huge impact of organizations like the Heifer Project whose gift of a goat sets the economic tables in an upward spiral for Beatrice’s family and many others. Joyful, vibrant paintings accompany this upbeat, intriguing story. Ages 4 and up.
Kele’s Secret, by Tololwa M. Mollel, illustrated by Catherine Stock
published in 1997 by Lodestar Books
Tololwa Mollel is an Arusha Maasai who grew up on his grandparents’ coffee farm in Tanzania. This fabulous account of a small boy named Yoanes and his search for the eggs laid by grandmother’s hens in such strange places…even frightening places…rings true in a delightful, transporting way.
Catherine Stock’s masterful watercolor work brings the countryside and marketplaces of Tanzania to vivid life. Wonderful story for ages 3 and up.
In a Cloud of Dust, written by Alma Fullerton, illustrated by Brian Deines
published in 2015 by Pajama Press
This brief, touching story is set on the hot dusty plains of rural Tanzania. Anna has a long walk to her school so she’s awestruck to see a truck full of bicycles bearing a sign — Bicycle Library — pull up in front of the school. It would be a dream to have a bicycle of her own! In a realistic, poignant twist, Anna and her friends learn to make do and share the bikes they are given.
Gorgeous paintings bring a hot glow to the Tanzanian countryside. An Author’s Note gives further information about the role of bicycles in Africa and some charities working to bring bikes to people who need them. Lovely and thought-provoking for ages 3 and up.
The Elizabeti books are sweet stories set in Tanzania. I’ve previously brought you:
Here’s a sequel to that story:
Mama Elizabeti, written by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, illustrated by Christy Hale
published in 2000 by Lee & Low Books
Mama’s had yet another baby, this time a darling sister named Flora. That means Mama’s got her hands full and it’s up to Elizabeti to care for her toddler brother, Obedi.
Elizabeti has had lots of practice taking care of her rock doll, so how hard can this be? Turns out — very hard indeed! Obedi is a busybody! He’s quite a stout load for Elizabeti to carry on her back and causes no end of trouble while she goes about her other daily chores. How on earth is a young girl supposed to manage all this?
This story warmly presents a reality for young African girls who bear extraordinary responsibilities at such tender ages. Elizabeti is a resourceful, kindhearted sister and her solution to her troubles will win your hearts. Ages 4 and up. Look for other titles in this series as well.
Our next stop is Central and Southern Africa.