Last month I babysat a friend’s child. It was Friday night and there I was, sitting next to him in his bed: it was story telling time. I drew from a pile of books a colourfully covered one, with a very yellow giraffe: Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, beautifully illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees.
It was about a giraffe named Gerald who thought he couldn’t dance, until a wise cricket taught him that: “We all can dance, when we find music that we love.”
Reading out loud the very melodic narrative, I could see why this book won so many awards. And yet, the book failed in something very important, at least for me: the way it portrays Africa. After describing the clumsy Gerald (who thought he couldn’t dance), the book explains that “every year in Africa, they hold the Jungle dance”, with confusing drawings that mix images of the sunset in the savannah and a little clearing in a dense jungle. A giraffe in a dense jungle… that might explain why the poor Gerald had mobility problems. Is this story set in a Kenyan national parks or in a Congolese tropical forest? Maybe it was in the border between the two countries (wait…never mind!)
Back to story telling, the kid loved the book and now wanted another one. I reached for Anna Hibiscus’ Song, authored by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia. With a beautiful drawing of a black girl on the cover, it seemed very promising. The opening drawing shows the urban environment in which the story takes place, with buildings, cars and air-planes; and a big house, with a flourished garden and a mango tree in the yard, all surrounded by a round wall. The first page pictures Anna Hibiscus climbing on the mango tree. And the first line reads: “Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa, Amazing Africa”.
The story tells us about this little girl – Anna – who is so happy that she does not know what to do. She asks her Grandma, Grandpa, Aunties, Uncle Tunde, Cousins, Dad and Mum, who also live in the big compound, what do they do when they are happy. Many suggestions come, but she finally realises at the end of the story that she should sing when she is happy. And the book finishes with: “Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa. Anna Hibiscus is amazing too.”
As the story unfolds, the author shows each one of Anna’s family members, what they do, their names, how they are dressed. It gives you a good insight into that family. And for those who know a bit about Nigeria (as I do), it is obvious by the names and dresses that this story is set in a Nigerian family, probably Yoruba. The city portrayed in the opening and closing undercover is very similar to Lagos, with its mixture of big roads, loads of airplanes and cars, street markets and walled houses. Why is this book not about ‘Amazing Nigeria’? Or even Amazing Lagos? Why is it set in the generalising ‘Africa’ instead of indicating the exact location?
The giraffe’s story is not about anything specifically African. Giraffes Can’t Dance was set in Africa (in a generalising way) probably because of the stereotyped image that the author has of the continent. Since a giraffe is the main character, where else could this story have happened? However, in Anna Hibiscus’ song, it is clear that the author and illustrator knew well the area that they were setting their narrative. Why they decided to go for ‘Africa’ instead of Nigeria?
This choice for ‘Africa’ instead of the specific place can also be seen in the book Kroko e a Galinhola: um Conto Africano [Kroko and the chicken: an African story – my translation], by Maté. Although the author opted for the general ‘African’ in the title, on the first page, she explains that this story is from Burundi, “a small country in Central Africa”. Actually, she knows enough to name the river in which the story unfolds: Luvironza river.
Is this option for the generalising of ‘Africa’ an intent to make the narrative more accessible for children? Maybe children know about Africa ( that place full of jungles and elephants, and giraffes tangled in the trees and vines…), but not about Luvironza river. Or is this a market move? Does a book settled in ‘Africa’ sell better than one in Nigeria or Burundi? In any case, I think children (and parents) would be happy reading about a giraffe dancing the boogie woogie in a Kenyan national park, while Anna Hibiscus searched for her song in her Nigerian home. A story unfolded on the shore of the Luvironza river can be as entertaining as any other. And all of these stories would be teaching their little readers something different about each of these places.