Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Stories for all the lovely people*

Fire on the Mountain In the Small, Small Night I Love My Hair

About this time last year I found myself hunting down books for young African refugees. Now it's time to do it again. I'm looking for books for all the lovely people in the class, and I'm delighted to report that I have found a few more excellent titles to add to last year's list.

Fire on the Mountain, by Jane Kurtz and EB Lewis, is a re-telling of a traditional Ethiopian tale. Alemayu is a young cowherd. Circumstances force him to become the servant of a boastful rich man who claims to be the only one able to spend a night on the cold mountain with nothing but a shemma for warmth. But Alemayu has done so many times. The rich man forces him to prove it, but when he finds out Alemayu stayed warm by looking at someone's fire on another mountain, denies him his reward. So Alemayu's sister cooks up a great feast for the rich man. As he sits and enjoys the cooking smells wafting in from another room, the rich man is served... nothing. 'What kind of person thinks that smells of food can fill a man's stomach?' demands the rich man. 'The same kind of person who believes that looking at a fire can keep a boy warm,' answers the sister. Check mate!

Fire on the Mountain is gently illustrated in the soft muted colours of the desert. The characters are beautifully depicted, especially Alemayu and his sister; and I very much hope some of the Ethiopian kids in the class recognise the story and enjoy this re-telling. But I must admit I am looking forward to reading this with one particular boy for another reason. The rich man's feast features injera, the Ethiopian bread; and this boy has a passion for it. When I first asked this boy if he ate injera, he was so astonished that I knew about injera that he actually fell over backwards. I look forward to seeing his reaction when he finds injera mentioned in a book!

Jane Kurtz also wrote In the Small, Small Night (illustrated by Rachel Isadora). It's the story of two refugee children trying to get to sleep; but Kofi is afraid that he will forget his family in Ghana now that he is in America. So his sister Abena, remembering the village storyteller, recounts traditional stories from home: Anansi and the pot of wisdom; and the turtle and the vulture. Between their stories and the conversation, Kofi is soothed back to sleep.

The story is told without a hint of mawkishness; yet it is very touching as these two young children, so far from home, talk about their fears and what they have left behind. But what is just as moving is the way Abena has brought the gift of storytelling with her from Ghana. The wisdom contained in those stories will sustain them as they start at a new school, in a new culture, where everything is different.

One small difference is the hair! The girls in my class and I wonder at each other's. 'Why you cut it like a boy?' they demand when my hair is freshly cropped; but they like to stroke it all the same, and play with my daughter's bunches, admiring its softness. I adore their hair right back, whether it's braided down their backs, or plaited in wild directions, or tipped with beads. Thus I was delighted to find the book I Love My Hair, by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and also illustrated by EB Lewis, a celebration of African hair. In this story, a little girl is having her hair done. As her mother combs and tugs, the little girl's eyes fill with tears. So her mother stops, and tells her stories about her beautiful hair: it can be woven like yarn into a 'puffy little bun'; it can be parted into rows and planted with braids like a garden; it can cloud around her head like the world; it can stick out in ponytails like wings. And the little girl, thinking of all these things, imagines she can fly.

The illustrations dreamily illustrate the metaphors for the girl's hair; and the image of the girl sitting between her mother's thighs having her hair combed is so intimate, you can feel the weight of the bodies leaning into each other. A wonderful book.

*which is what I call the kids as a group, and what they now call their class to me.

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