Friday 11 April 2014

Amazing, Anna Hibiscus!

I have always been a big reader since I could...well, read.

I spent a large portion of my childhood and adolescence in the public library (and many parts of my adulthood, but less for leisure and more out of necessity). It was an escape in the hard times, a delight in the good times, an exploration with friends brave, loyal, cunning and true in those story books nestled so close together on the shelves.

     Thus, I've always had a little secret dream of having my own private home library, full of books I loved and love still, in order to share them with my children. I positively glow inside at the thought of tucking up for a cosy night, reading books about dragons and spies and stubborn princesses and courageous children setting out for adventure with someone for whom this is all new, and for whom this will be something precious and wonderful.

One thing that was important about this book collection is that it must feature as diverse a cast of characters as possible. And that must include people who resemble me and/or my future little bookworms.

It's not always easy. But the other day, while I was walking along the shelves, head tipped at a 90 degree angle to make reading the names of the authors easier, I was taken aback by something.

"Atinuke?" Just the one name for an author was strange enough, but then the fact that was a sound, from a language so familiar?

I stopped and picked up the book, before quickly realising it was in a series. I took all four that were available out from the library and devoured the stories within an evening.

Yes, I read children's books. Good ones, anyway.

The Anna Hibiscus books are sweet, poignant, funny and observational, but set at a level and in language that children can understand (apart from maybe the little bits of pigeon and Yoruba). They are beautifully illustrated with cheery and joyful pictures by Lauren Tobia.

From an adult perspective, I marvelled at the fact that issues grown ups may tip toe around are dealt with head on. In 'Have Fun Anna Hibiscus!', Anna goes to Canada and we see the cultural differences through her eyes - from having dogs inside the house, to her first time ice-skating and making friends when you are different. Anna. In 'Welcome Home, Anna Hibiscus!' a friend from Canada comes over and shows her unawareness of

"Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa'.

Mainly, I love how positive the book is about Africa. Anna is neither ridiculously rich nor pitifully poor, though she does see poverty and wealth at different times in the different books. For me, as a child of Nigerian parents, who has never been to the African continent, this was an important bridge between the two polarising images of Africans - desperately poor or obscenely rich. There is a lot of negativity surrounding the continent, so it's lovely to see someone underline the normalcy that happens in-between, underneath and despite all the media imagery.

It is a middle ground I can imagine my parents inhabiting easily, where you are comfortable but still work and are supported by family.

One story that tickled me has to be in 'Hooray for Anna Hibiscus!'
In this story, Anna is fed up of having to deal with the fact she gets her hair down every week, so she takes matters into her own hands and hides when the braiders arrive. Then she has to deal with her hair by herself for the whole week...

I thought it was a really cute explanation of why many African girls braid their hair! I loved and was surprised by it, because I wasn't expecting to find such a story in the book. Also, Anna's style of choice was my favourite when I was little. I called them 'Minnie Mouse Ears':

Lauren Tobias' illustrations perfectly complement the story - simple and yet intricate and complex at the same time. In one picture, I marvelled at the range and detail put into the clothing and varying hairstyles of the characters on the page.

If you're interested in hearing Atinuke herself talk about the books, I've found a good interview here.

Maybe it's due to a kind of cultural or genetic cultural nostalgia; maybe it's because I found much that was familiar to me in the storied; or maybe it's because the books are incredibly well written.
All in all, I was very impressed by these books that I stumbled upon unexpectedly in the library and am definitely adding them to a roster of books I'll be buying in the future.

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