Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

The African Orchestra, written by Wendy Hartmann, illustrated by Joan Rankin
published in 2017 by Crocodile Books, Interlink Publishing Group

That buzzing cicada? That crackle-snap of a seed pod breaking? The thunder of hooves as a herd of zebras races across the plains? The burbling of a brook freshened by a mighty rainfall?

All those sounds woven into the wild, vast, haunting, lovely, lush, bleak African landscapes, found their way into African musical instruments as humans invented ways to replicate nature’s songs.

Thought-provoking ideas, lyrical text, and marvelously inventive, artistic images capture the natural world of Africa and the emotion of its music. A brilliant concept and collaboration to muse over with children ages 3 and up.

You can pursue the idea of nature-inspired music with these brilliant guides to classical music:

Listen to the Birds, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Cecilia Verela, translated from Spanish by Heléne Roulston and Sabrina Diotalevi
first published in Spain in 2010; English edition 2013 by The Secret Mountain

Amazing Water, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Margarita Sada, translated from Spanish by David Lytle
first published in Spain; English edition 2016 by The Secret Mountain

Gerhard chooses 20 classical selections for each book, with themes and sounds that convey birdsong and water respectively.

For example, Vivaldi’s “The Goldfinch and Saint-Saën’s “Aviary” from The Carnival of the Animals are included in Listen to the Birds. Schubert’s Trout quintet and “Alla Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music are included in Amazing Water.

Background for each piece is provided which might be best read by a parent to dole out judiciously, as well as brilliant listening notes that accompany the included CD, drawing children’s attention to specific aspects of the music and explaining how these reflect the subject. There are also brief bios of each composer and a glossary of musical terms, and all of this is presented on pages dominated by joyful illustrations.

This is a great resource for homeschooling families, for example, who could putter through one volume over a 20 week period with children as young as 3 or 4.

There is one other title in this series, Simply Fantastic, which explores fantasy-oriented musical selections.



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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-cover-imageThe 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-thunderstormes-cover-imageCartwheeling 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-cover-imageThe 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.

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miracle on 133rd street cover imageMiracle on 133rd Street, by Sonia Manzano, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
published in 2015 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

A riot of color, an array of cultures, and a generous helping of neighborliness shine in this swizzling story from New York City. 

José and his mami and papi are originally from Puerto Rico. And every Christmas, Mami is homesick. To make matters worse, this year’s traditional pork roast does not fit in her oven. Oh, for a big, sunny, Puerto Rican yard to roast the Christmas pig in, she thinks.

miracle on 133rd street interior manzano and priceman

So, Papi boxes that roast up and sets out with José for Regular Ray’s Pizzeria where ginormous ovens await. Along the way, these two meet neighbors and friends galore who are not looking very merry. But as they return, the heady aroma of olive oil and garlic beckons one and all to share in their feast, until an apartmentful of DiPalmas and Santiagos and Wozenskys and more are happily celebrating together.

This kindhearted story was written by Sonia Manzano, best known for her decades-long role as Maria on Sesame Street. Marjorie Priceman splashes every page with energy, warmth, and cheer with her hot-tamale, gladsome, effervescent illustrations. Great choice for ages 3 and up.

the christmas carp cover imageThe Christmas Carp, by Rita Törnqvist, pictures by Marit Törnqvist, translated by Greta Kilburn
originally published in Sweden; published in the U.S. in 1990 by R&S Books

Apparently, in Prague there’s an old tradition of cooking a carp for Christmas.

One goes to the Christmas market just before Christmas Eve, buys a fat carp from the fishmonger, hauls it home, and sets it to swimming in the bathtub. There its silveriness stays nice and fresh until it’s time for Christmas dinner. Oy.

This is the story of a little boy named Thomas and his Grandpa. Of Christmas bread and fish-shaped cookies and floating walnut-shell candles. Of carolers and the bridges of Prague and a carp bought by Thomas who he names Peppo which seems destined not to be eaten on Christmas Day.

the christmas carp illustration marit tornqvist

It’s a sweet story of a tenderhearted boy and his understanding grandfather, rich with the atmosphere of this beautiful, historic city. Marit Törnqvist’s delicately-hued, detailed watercolors envelop us in this place and these lives. An appealing, sensitive story for ages 5 and up.

la noche buena cover imageLa Noche Buena: A Christmas Story, by Antonoio Sacre, illustrated by Angela Dominguez
published in 2010 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Nina is visiting her dad’s side of the family in Little Havana, Miami, for the Christmas holidays. No snowy Christmas scenes here. Instead,  palm trees and parrots and heat.

Her abuela welcomes her into a bustle of women cooking marinade with the old family recipe. Nina quickly becomes a part of the commotion, lugging jars of marinade from the spicy kitchen to her Uncle Tito’s yard where a bathtub and a barbecue pit await their 3-day, pig-roasting extravaganza.

la noche buena illustration angela dominguez

A backyard feast, the Rooster’s Mass, and all-night dancing under the stars make up the traditional celebration of La Noche Buena, the Good Night, Christmas Eve, the best night of the year for this Cuban family. Enjoy a welcoming, vibrant look at these cultural traditions with kids ages 4 and up.

a stork in a baobab tree cover imageA Stork in a Baobab Tree: An African Twelve Days of Christmas, by Catherine House, illustrated by Polly Alakija
published in 2011 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

On the first day of this Christmas, my true love gives me a stork in a baobab tree. And on day five, he shows up with five bright khangas —  brightly-colored lengths of cloth used as wrap skirts, headdresses, baby slings, or what have you.

Travel around the continent via this traditional carol, gathering carvings from Nigeria, baskets from Ethiopia, dancers from Morocco, and learning a teensy bit about each gift as we go.

a stork in a baobab tree illustration polly alakija

There’s a nice variety of stops, although you’ll have to look in the Note from the Author to identify each place. In the text, they’re all referred to as “Africa.” That’s a small quibble with an otherwise intriguing, informative book, handsomely illustrated. Ages 4 and up.

baseball bats for christmas cover imageBaseball Bats for Christmas, story by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, art by Vladyana Krykorka
published in 1990 by Annick Press Ltd.

Inuit storyteller Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak grew up in what is now Nunavut, then Northwest Territories, where he and his family lived a traditional, nomadic lifestyle. 

This story offers a delightful peek into his arctic homeland. In 1955, when he was just seven years old, a beloved bush pilot arrives at Christmastime and delivers a bunch of…what on earth? Green, spindly things. No one is quite sure what they are for, but they come in quite handy for turning into baseball bats.

baseball bats for christmas illustration vladyana krykorka

Get to the bottom of the mystery, meet Michael and his playmates, taste the vastness of Repulse Bay, and learn the generous custom of Inuit gift-giving in this lovely story for ages 4 or 5 and up. The illustrations beautifully portray the handsome Inuit people, blue-cold landscape, and warmth of friendship.

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