Africa

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

Lots by Marc Martin

Quirky and intriguing, Lots is a book about impressions – what do we notice when we go somewhere? How does one place distinguish itself from another? What would we like to explore? Marc Martin has chosen 15 places to illuminate – and they certainly shine. With handwritten text, illustrations reminiscent of William Grill in their intensity and number, this is a vibrant, bold and wonderful new non-fiction book. One for children who want to find out the little known facts about a place, or see it represented in resplendent colour. Check out, in particular, the illustration of the favelas in Rio, or the bawabs in Cairo, the Salema fish in the Galapagos, or the solitary walker in Times Square, New York. This is a beautifully illustrated book that deserves awards for both its quirkiness and illustrations. I’m delighted to host Marc on the blog today, explaining why he chose the places he did. 

It was really difficult to choose which places to include in LOTS – there are so many fascinating destinations with their own distinct character that I would have loved to include, but with only 32 pages, there are only so many places I could pick!

So, I started with a long list and slowly narrowed it down. I wanted to include a mix of iconic cities, such as New York and Paris, as well as places that not everyone might think of, such as Ulaan Bataar and Reykjavík. I also made sure I chose locations from each continent, and tried to ensure there was a good mix of cities and nature.

In terms of focusing on each place, I tried to identify some of the particularities of each destination – some are more colourful, some are busy, some are full of animals, some are really hot and some are quite cold! I asked myself questions such as: ‘What are some of the things you would notice if you were travelling here?’ or ‘What is it about this place that makes it different from other cities?’.

I’d also visited about half the places in the book, so personal experience helped shape my decisions – for instance, in Delhi I was amazed by how many cows there are roaming the streets (and how colourful they can be) – it’s not something you’d see in other cities outside of India!

If I hadn’t been to the place I was drawing, I relied on research and information from people who had been there. Once I started researching a particular location in more detail, it was usually pretty easy to discover some of the more unique things about it. There’s an amazing amount of information on the internet, and you can usually find travel blogs and other websites that give you insights into what makes a place particularly different.

Some of my favourite places in the book to visit are New York, Ulaan Bataar and Delhi. I love New York because of how vibrant and fast-paced it can be – there are lots of people from all around the world and you can always find something to do just by wandering the streets. Delhi can be slightly more challenging for visitors, just because it’s very chaotic and there’s a sense of the unexpected, but it’s a very energetic city with lots to discover. Lastly, I like Ulaan Bataar because it’s a little bit hard to get to, and off the beaten track. The people are extremely friendly, and the vastness of the Mongolian landscape is stunning.

With thanks to Marc for the guest post. You can buy it here

Out of Africa

Recently the journalist Ainehi Edoro wrote an interesting article in The Guardian about the bias of the book industry in terms of African novels, comparing the Western agenda when we publish, read and review African novels to the agenda applied when reviewing novels from the Western canon. We tend to attribute an imagined anthropological value to African fiction, assuming a cultural viewpoint about their issues and themes first, rather than seeing them as we would American or British books – in which we are simply guided in our reviews by characterisation, plot. Ie. Writing first and themes secondary.

bobo road

So it was with great interest that two picture books set in Africa arrived on my desk in the same week. One, published by an award-winning children’s publisher, is All Aboard for the Bobo Road, written by Stephen Davies and illustrated by Christopher Corr.

What’s extraordinary about this picture book is the colour. It is as if the African sun is shining directly out of the pages – the amount of brightness and colour detail is completely captivating – the children testers I used for this book positively beamed back at the lustre and glow.

Fatima and Galo board the bus bound for Bobo. Their father Big Ali drives the bus, and on the journey the children keep track of all the livestock, people and goods that are boarded onto the bus, as well as watching the landscape go past.

Readers can help to count cargo on and off the bus, including three bicycles, seven watermelons, five sacks of rice, nine goats and much much more. Along the way, the children see a hippo lake, a waterfall, the forest, rock domes, market stalls, and the Grand Mosque. Each page brims with detail and above all, colour.

At the waterfall for example, the water is like big slaps of blue paint against a brown rock background with a multitude of colourful patterned rugs in the foreground, plants at the summit, and people everywhere, with colourful clothes, bags and hats. The goods are stark and bold – blue and orange bicycles, colourful bundles on heads, an assortment of vehicles ferried on top of the bus. The ground itself isn’t brown or beige – but a bright purple. Each spread is differentiated in its colour, from the vibrant oranges of the rock domes to the lush green of the forest, the blue of the town.

Even the endpapers blaze with light and interest – tracking the different sites of Burkina Faso, which is where the author based his story, after his experiences there over several years. The text too shines, with the unloading and loading of cargo, the counting within, and the descriptions: the children are ‘tired and hungry’, Galo unloads watermelons ‘huffing and puffing’ and Fatima unloads rice ‘craning and straining’.

The last pages are particularly effective, subtly showing the difference between what children see and what adults see.

There are familiar traits for a bus picture book, such as the wheels of the bus turning round, and the beep beep as the bus sets off, but in other ways this is a truly original picture book, and stands out from the crowd as being the brightest I have ever seen. You can buy a copy here.

princess arabella

The other picture book is published by Cassava Republic Press, whose very ambition is to change the narrative on African books, rooting African writing in all its different experiences, be it rural or urban, past or future.  Princess Arabella’s Birthday by Mylo Freeman aims to show that not all princesses are blonde and blue-eyed, whilst also containing a clear message that princesses should be careful what they wish for.

Princess Arabella has everything she could possibly want, so her parents are stuck as to what to buy her for her birthday. The princess decides that she wants a real live elephant, and her wish is granted. The only problem – this is not a compliant elephant. The twist at the end of the book is delightful – but it’s the small illustrations throughout that endear Princess Arabella to the reader, and serve to make this a series to watch.

From the elephant-shaped balloon on the cover, to the hilariously bad parenting of the King and Queen and the size of the net used to catch the elephant – there is plenty in each illustration to make the reader giggle. The colours are vibrant, the jauntiness of facial expressions well-executed. It’s a simple story – for young readers – but conveys a vibrancy of personality and landscape, and conveys the beauty of another country – from the sandals on her feet to the sunset in the background – with ease and simplicity.

You can buy the book here.

Animal Conservation

The world can be a boggling place for a child. There are so many difficult topics swirling around. How do we introduce and explain them? I talked about First News newspaper on Sunday and its ability to draw difficult things to our attention, such as war, refugees, poverty, and the environment.

But if we want to go one step further and find the reasons behind things, the whys and hows, what we can do about these topics, and how we feel about it, then we can turn to fiction. Books are a great way to discover things about our world, and our place within it.

Two stalwarts of children’s literature tackle the very tricky topics of animal poaching, child guerrilla soldiers, mining, deforestation and more, in two compelling books for children.

operation rhino

Operation Rhino by Lauren St John
Although book five of the White Giraffe series, this can equally be read as a stand-alone book, because St John beautifully summarises past happenings throughout the book, and the characters come across just as strongly as if you had read all the prior books. Of course it can also be read in sequence as part of this vibrant series.

Martine lives in Africa with her grandmother, on a game reserve. When their white rhinos are attacked by poachers looking to take the rhinos’ horns, Martine and her friend Ben accompany the surviving baby rhino to a sanctuary in the National Park. Whilst there, they try to play detective and work out who the poachers are, only to realise that they might have stumbled right into the poachers’ lair.

Martine grew up in England, which affords St John the luxury of comparing things in Africa to things here – such as a train ride for example, which is particularly useful for her UK readership to draw parallels between the two environments and to see the differences. Her youthful protagonist also has a child’s outlook so can draw on a simple view of animal and human rights, which again, for her youthful audience means that complex arguments can be explained in a simple way or pared down.

Most importantly though, despite the author’s huge amount of fantastic detail about animals on the reserve, and plants and flowers of the region (St John grew up on a farm and game reserve in Africa), she is an experienced writer and manages to keep the pace light and the plot moving forwards.

Delightfully, the characters are warm, and intensely likeable, Martine in particular, as the reader is inside her head and can empathise with her guilt when she feels she has done wrong, and experience her intense emotions for both the animals and humans around her.  It’s very apparent that the animals surrounding her give her enormous release, and pleasure – just as in reality friendships with animals can be a useful way for helping troubled children to heal.

The subject matter is serious, and St John describes the length poachers will go to (including shooting at children), but also describes the goodness of those who will do their utmost to save endangered animals – and how important this is.

This is confident and assertive storytelling that ekes out a message at the same time as telling a compelling story. You can buy it here.

gorilla dawn

Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis

This is an wonderfully powerful book, dealing with an incredibly difficult subject matter for anyone, let alone children – but Gill Lewis pulls it off with some masterful storytelling and acute characterisation, pulling the reader through a quagmire of emotion from the beginning.

Told from three different perspectives, Gill Lewis weaves the story of a group of guerrillas and their child soldiers as they firstly storm villages for supplies, and then settle in the mountains of the Congo to mine for coltan. During their time there they capture a baby gorilla.

The first, and most powerful perspective is that of Imara, a girl captured by the guerrillas, and now a powerful entity within the camp as the soldiers believe her to be a spirit child. Gill Lewis depicts her inner turmoil brilliantly – the power she holds over the men, a power that she is scared to relinquish, and which is held in battle with her underlying conscience – fighting for what is right. When she starts to care for the baby gorilla, her love for it threatens to put her own life in jeopardy.

The second perspective is that of Bobo, son of a missing mountain ranger, who infiltrates the camp in order to discover the truth about his father. Through his many years of connection to the gorillas in the mountains, he also positions himself as one with power in the group, hoping to use it in the right way.

And the third perspective is that of the baby gorilla. Basic needs and desires, which as Gill Lewis cunningly depicts, are not that dissimilar to ours.

The background of the lush mountains of the Congo is intensely described, especially when the men start to pull it apart in order to mine for coltan, that precious mineral that has unique properties for storing electrical charge and so is used for our phones and computers.

Despite the harsh and stark message that the book delivers about our environment and our source materials, this is a gripping read and one of the most compelling stories I have read in children’s literature this year. Definitely Gill Lewis’s grittiest novel, children will be bowled over by the action, the moral argument, and inspired with a new understanding of our place in the world. Expect depiction of some gun violence, and kidnap, but it is tame enough and certainly relevant for 9+ years. Buy it here.