Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So much... and so little

Oscar's Half Birthday So Much Catch That Goat!: A Market Day in Nigeria Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo Full, Full, Full of Love
Our house is full of books. We periodically shuffle things around to find ways of fitting them into the bookcases we have. We keep board books in a big tub, and picture books in Papa's old milk crate. Books teeter in piles on the dining table. They sit on our bedside tables, and are stacked on our bedhead. I find them shoved into the bathroom shelves by young readers forced to take baths. We have books of anecdotes in the toilet (where else?), recipe books in the kitchen, and random books piled on every surface. It drives me mad, it's such a mess - but it makes me feel comfortable, and tells me that I'm home.

Only three miles away is a primary school on a housing estate. I recently received a message forwarded from a teacher there. Of the kids in one class, only three had a single children's book at home. Those books were scribbled and torn. A kid in another class had brought in a book he found in a cereal packet so that it could be kept safe from his many siblings. Most of the kids are refugees; most come from the Horn of Africa. The teacher was appealing to book lovers to donate new books, so these kids could all take home a book or two for their very own.

Book person that I am, I cried and cried. And now I'm out a-hunting. What sort of books to buy? These kids are poor African refugees living in flats, probably separated from loved ones. And yet almost every children's picture book I have seen features happy white nuclear families living in the suburbs. Where are the black families? The single parent families? The families living in high rise estates? And I'm not talking about 'issues' books, just normal books that portray every day people living every day lives in flats, or with one parent, or in all sorts of households. People who are black, or Middle Eastern, or Asian. People like our neighbours. Because it seems to me that these kids need to see familiar faces, familiar spaces, represented in books if books are ever to become safe places and welcome friends.

Here's my list so far. It's short, so I'm very open to ideas! If you have any suggestions of other books, make a comment so I can find them too. I know amazon, and I'm not afraid to use it!

*Oscar's Half Birthday by Bob Graham. Oscar is six months old! His mum (African heritage, cornrow hair) and his dad (dweeby white guy in birkies) and his sister decide to celebrate with a picnic. So they leave their highrise flat, go down the graffitied elevator, wander under the railway line and up to the local park. Locals join in the happy birthday song, including an elegant lady in hijab. Looks like my suburb!

*So Much by Trish Cooke. An Afro-Caribbean family gathers to celebrate Daddy's birthday. As they arrive, each member kisses or bounces or pinches or hugs the baby, because they all love him, "SO much!" Written with a Caribbean lilt, it's a delight to read aloud.

*Catch That Goat!: A Market Day in Nigeria by Polly Alakija. Ayoka has to look after the goat while her Mama goes out. But the goat escapes and runs through a busy Nigerian market, stealing goods along the way. Ayoka searches the market looking for the goat, greeting stall holders and counting what has been taken. The illustrations are gorgeously rich, their patterning evoking African cloth. And the adult reader is especially entertained by the market signs: Mama Put Cool Spot, serving cow leg soup; or Midas, The Ultimate Barbing Zone. An old housemate of mine lived in Ghana for a year; the signs in the book remind me intensely of her photographs which adorned our dining room wall.

*Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo by Julius Lester. Remember Little Black Sambo? Well, here it is reclaimed by one of the foremost African American story tellers of our time. It's set in the mythical country of Sam-Sam-Samara, where animals and people talk and are friends. The writing is in a Southern voice ("Ain't I fine?!" says Sam when he buys his new clothes), and Sam is wise to the tigers' goings on. Lester Pinkney's drawings are exquisite: trees have images patterned into their bark; tiny beetles are tucked into odd corners; faces are wrinkled and gentle and wise.

*Full, Full, Full of Love by Trish Cooke. An African American family gathers to enjoy Sunday lunch together.

Any other suggestions?


  1. tikki tikki tembo - not african but asian (so there would be no bland white faces like my own in it) and with a seemingly single mum - a favorite of my kids and grandkids who can still remember tikki tikki tembo's very long name. a fabulous read-aloud book.

  2. Maybe Ezra Jack Keats?