Monday, January 24, 2011

Anna Hibiscus

The African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" is demonstrated again and again in Anna Hibiscus, an early chapter book by Atinuke. Set in Africa in an unnamed country (that sounds a lot like Nigeria), the book features its eponymous character, a young girl who lives with her extended family "in an old white house with balconies and secret staircases."

Anna can't image a life not surrounded by grandparents, aunties, uncles, and many, many cousins. So when, in the first story, Anna's father announces that only the immediate family will be going on a beach vacation, Anna is incredulous. And rightly so. For without the help of their relatives, the workload is overwhelming, and Anna's twin baby brothers, Double and Trouble, prove a handful. Father returns home to fetch the aunties to help with the work, then the cousins to amuse the twins, then the uncles to keep him company, and finally his parents for their wisdom and their ability to restore order to the squabbling household.    

With all its dozens of family members, the household would seem to be complete. But it's not. Auntie Comfort lives far away in America on the other side of the Atlantic. Anna can't wait until she is strong enough to swim right across the ocean to see her aunt. Luckily, she won't have to make such an arduous journey because the family learns that Auntie Comfort is coming to visit. Preparations begin at once, with everyone doing his or her part. Anna notices that Grandfather is worried that his youngest daughter might have forgotten "the proper African way" of doing things. With the help of an uncle, Anna sends messages to her aunt, reminding her of their customs. When Auntie Comfort arrives, dressed in traditional garb, Anna is reassured.

Anna learns an important lesson in the third story about work, money, and class. Bored with the quiet life in the family's comfortable compound, she yearns for the excitement of the city outside its walls. She's especially enamored of the girls who sell fruit and vegetables from baskets on their heads. Anna longs to be one of them, and begs her grandfather to allow her to do so. When he ignores her, she fills a basket with oranges and marches off. Because her oranges are freshly picked, they sell quickly. At the end of the day, Anna has a handful of coins in her pocket. The other girls do not fare as well, and Anna learns that they and their family will go hungry. She confesses to her grandfather, and the next morning he has Anna work for the girls. All day she walks back and forth to the market to fetch the girls the fruit that they sell. When evening falls, Anna's feet have blisters and she is sore through and through. But she knows "what it is to work hard."

The final story involves Anna's desire to "set her eyes, her feet, her hands, on snow." In her family, only her mother, who was born and raised in Canada, has experienced its frosty delight. Anna goes about the compound trying to recreate snow and failing. It's only when a letter comes from Granny Canada that Anna gets an inkling how to make her dream come true.

Anna Hibiscus is a finalist in the 2010 Cybils awards and deservedly so. Beginning readers are rarely given the opportunity of reading a book set in a world so different from their own. Luckily for them, Atinuke has a storyteller's natural voice. She brings Anna and her family to life through snatches of spot-on dialogue and by showing what it really means to be part of a large, loving family. Sometimes Anna's mother is cross with her and can't help her. When that happens, Anna knows to find a less-busy  aunt or uncle.  Lauren Tobia's black-and-white illustrations are a delight, showing homey details not always provided in the text. For instance, at the end of Anna's long day of work at the market, the illustration shows her back in the compound, her feet soaking in a bucket of water. A companion book, Hooray for Anna Hibiscus, is out, and two more books, Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus and Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus will be published in March. Put them all on your must-read list!

Anna Hibiscus
by Atinuke
illustrations by Lauren Tobia
Kane Miller, 112 pages
Published: 2010

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