Today our tour hovers in the central region of Africa and journeys all the way to its southernmost tip. Let’s begin in…
Rain School, written and illustrated by James Rumford published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
The children in this village and their indomitable teacher rebuild their school building each year after the tremendous rains of rainy season wash the old one away.
Making mud bricks, building mud desks, drying them in the hot sun, thatching the roof, until finally, finally it’s time to take their seats and begin learning. Vibrant in both story and illustrations. Ages 4 and up.
The Village of Round and Square Houses, written and illustrated by Ann Grifalconi published in 1986 by Little, Brown and Company
This Caldecott Honor winner from 1987 brings us to Tos, a small village in the Bameni Hills of Cameroon, where for time immemorial the men have lived in square houses while the women live in round ones!
Find out how this tradition came about in this account, illustrated in gorgeous pastels by Ann Grifalconi. Superb storytelling, cultural details, and an old local legend will all leave kids spellbound, ages 3 or 4 and up.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Monkey for Sale, written and illustrated by Sanna Stanley published in 2002 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
A little girl named Luzolo is given a 5-franc coin to spend at market. Determined to barter for the best thing she sees, she sets off, passing stands of mango candy, spicy peppers, fresh roasted peanuts, handwoven baskets.
What will Luzolo purchase? How much might a monkey cost? Can Luzolo and her best friend Kiese contrive to get that monkey? It’s a cheerful, clever story revealing effortlessly a typical, lively market, the bartering system so familiar to this much of Africa, and the workaday world of Luzolo’s village. Ages 3 and up.
A Walk Through a Rain Forest: Life in the Ituri Forest of Zaire, written by David Jenike and Mark Jenike, photography by Mark Jenike published in 1994 by Franklin Watts
This book is old enough that the name “Zaire” appears in its title, but the fascinating life of peoples whose home for thousands of years has been the rain forest of central Africa is just as compelling.
You’ll notice the cover, in keeping with its publication date, doesn’t look particularly zoopy, and it’s certainly not one of the newer creative-nonfiction styled books. But for slightly older children, the text is packed with intriguing information about the way of life of the Efe and Lese peoples and the creatures with whom they share these forests. This area of the world is scarcely covered in children’s lit. A bit lengthy. Try this with ages 7 or 8 and up, a bit at a time.
One of my kids’ all time favorite books growing up, this delightful story describes the ingenuous toy cars that Malawian children, as well as kids in many other parts of Africa, make with the odd bits and bobs of metal they can scavenge. Read my full review here. It’s a gem for ages 3 and up.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, written by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon published in 2012 by Dial Books for Young Readers
William Kamkwamba’s story has been told in longer works for older readers. This picture book brings his life in Malawi alive for young children.
Learn about the impact of drought on William’s community, the dread hunger that threatened their lives when crops would not grow through lack of rain, and of his brilliant engineering feat that transformed the village. It’s such an inspiring, hopeful story, for ages 5 and up. A lengthy afterword fills in lots of details.
Street Children Across the World, written by Anthony Robinson, illustrated by June Allan published in 2014 by Frances Lincoln Books
This is a sad title to stand alone under Mozambique, but the children featured in this title live there, as well as in Zimbabwe and Guatemala. And honestly, I am pleased to see this UK title spotlighting an enormous population that exists in our world.
There are an estimated 100-150 million street children currently. Just think about that number!
What are their lives like? Why are they on the street instead of in a home with a family? The answers to these questions are extremely tragic and raw, and at times dumbfoundingly vague and strange. In his short, excellent introduction, Anthony Robinson explains why that may be the case. It’s very helpful to read that before you begin your journey through this troubling book.
Photographs, colored pencil sketches, and the children’s own words comprise the whole account which differentiates between street-living children, street-working children, and street-living families. Eye-opening and important, I’d suggest ages 8 or 9 and up.
Torina’s World: A Child’s Life in Madagascar, photography and text by Joni Kabana, edited by Benjamin Opsahl published originally in 1997; this edition 2008 by Arnica Publishing, Inc.
This is such a unique and lovely book. It’s a photo essay. The photographer was guided by a little girl — whose image is on the book’s cover — through areas near the village of Marovoay, Madagascar, allowing her to gain the access and welcome needed to take these pictures.
The photographs are gorgeous, all produced in sepia tones. Accompanying them are only brief sentences of text, one telling simply what is going on in the photo, one asking how that compares to the reader’s experience. We get rides in the pousse-pousse. What do you ride in? Simple, but immensely engaging, effectively drawing children’s attention to the similarities and differences we share with people far and near. A short afterword updates us on Torina ten years after the project, and tells more about Madagascar. Ages 2 and up.
Gugu’s House, written and illustrated by Catherine Stock published in 2001 by Clarion Books
In the dry grasslands of Zimbabwe, down a long, dusty path, a most extraordinary house stands, created by an extraordinary woman named Gugu. She’s Kukamba’s grandmother, and what an artist she is, crafting giant zebras and elephants, jet planes and striking patterns that burst upon the eyes of the villagers like a fantasy.
Kukamba wants to become an artist, too. She has to learn how to create, and how to persevere, and how to see, and Gugu is just the one to lead her on that journey. Brilliant story based on a real woman and her fantastical compound in Zimbabwe.
Where Are You Going, Manyoni? written and illustrated by Catherine Stock published in 1993 by Morrow Junior Books
Catherine Stock’s gorgeous watercolors open up the world of the veld along the Limpopo River where one little girl named Manyoni lives. Her walk to school is extraordinary! You won’t want to miss tagging along with her.
A lovely read for ages 2 and up, with an Author’s Note, and a guide to the veld wildlife included.
A South African Night
A child in Johannesburg falls asleep with visions of the plains animals dancing in her head. Beautiful work from Rachel Isadora for ages 2 and up. My full review is here.
Goal, written by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by A.G. Ford published in 2010 by Candlewick Press
Football — the beautiful game — ignites passions around the world. Not the least in this South African township, where Ajani and his buddies are elated to play with the new, federation-size, leather ball Ajani has won for being best reader in his class.
Their after-school game is full of the joy of young boys’ championship dreams except for one thing: a gang of bullies that makes the streets unsafe. Is there any way for Ajani and his friends to outwit the bullies, keep their prime football, and become truly unbeatable?
I’m so happy to see this contemporary, urban setting, and one featuring sport to boot. Dynamic, robust illustrations. Great choice for ages 4 and up.
A Song for Jamela, written and illustrated by Niki Daly published in 2009 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Niki Daly has brought contemporary South Africa to vivid life with his Jamela series. In this story, Jamela is consumed with the Afro-Idols TV contest. Her grandmother, Gogo, wants her off that couch and doing something interesting so she sends her to Aunt Beauty’s hair salon to “help out” for the day.
When the entrancing Miss Bimbi Chaka Chaka, Jamela’s favorite Afro-Idol contestant, comes in the shop to have her hair done, it turns out to be a most surprising day for everyone involved! Funny and upbeat and a great urban African setting. Ages 4 and up.
The Herd Boy, written and illustrated by Niki Daly published in 2012 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Malusi herds his grandfather’s sheep and goats on the sunny South African veldt. It’s a big job for such a small boy, but Malusi is dependable, a quick learner, a hard worker, comfortable in solitude, and fierce in protecting his herd from many dangers. His friends dream of playing professional soccer, but Malusi has a much bigger dream.
It sounds preposterous to some, but one dignified visitor to Malusi’s village thinks otherwise. Rich cultural insights, an inspiring story beaming with hope, and a cameo appearance by Nelson Mandela. Ages 4 and up.
At the Crossroads, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora published in 1991 by Greenwillow Books
In many South African homes, fathers spend a great deal of time away from home, working in the mines. Rachel Isadora beautifully captures the longing and excitement as these children await the homecoming of their fathers after ten long months. This book was written several years before apartheid was abolished, and takes place in a shanty town in a segregated township. I honestly don’t know how this scene might have changed in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, it’s a warm, rich story for ages 3 and up.