What do children read?: A Review of ALT 33 Children’s Literature and Story-telling

Following AiW’s Q&A with Professor Emenyonu last week, and to kick-off our summer review series on African children’s literature, Tamara Moellenberg reviews ALT 33: Children’s Literature and Story-telling.

AiW Guest: Tamara MoellenbergALT 33

Children’s Literature and Story-telling, the latest issue of African Literature Today, brings much-needed attention to the numerous stories and folktales written for African children. As the editor, Ernest Emenyonu observes, “Some critics and scholars tend to see the genre [of children’s literature] as something quite trivial, nothing to reckon with […]” (1). Emphasizing the value of children’s literature, especially in Africa, the essays in Children’s Literature and Story-telling probe children’s ability to learn from, to enjoy, and to be empowered by what they read. A particular highlight of the issue for me was the attention given to little-studied writers, many of whom I look forward to engaging with further.

The issue opens with Emenyonu’s incisive précis of the challenges facing readers, advocates, and scholars of African children’s literature. Many though not all children’s books published on the African continent, according to Emenyonu, provide evidence of “hasty and shoddy production” (1). Furthermore, cultural attitudes are such that some parents may prefer to give their children “balloons and other toys” rather than books, thereby undervaluing reading (2). Faith Ben-Daniels, who takes a sociological approach to Ghanaian children’s literature in her article, echoes Emenyonu’s observations, analyzing the books available to children in two Ghanaian schools. Ben-Daniels discovers that the books read by children at Pentecost Preparatory School, a privately-run, urban institution, are overwhelmingly Euro-centric, meaning that they predominantly feature white children and are set in European or North American countries: “There was not a single work by an African writer on the shelves” (49). Meanwhile, the children at Adankwame District Assembly, a state-run, rural school, have hardly any access to books at all, partially, as a result of their parents’ inability to financially “guarantee” government-provided texts. (As guarantors, the parents are responsible for replacing books that have been lost or destroyed, which many cannot afford.)

Clearly, then, these is scope for ensuring that books, especially those which feature local protagonists, make it into the hands of Ghanaian, Nigerian, Cameroonian, and other African children. Ben-Daniels offers several insightful recommendations: book-borrowing conditions should be revised so that they do not put a burden on on poor families (50). Furthermore, both public and private institutions should strive to supply more books by Ghanaian and other African writers (50). Indeed, a peculiar strength of the ALT issue is the space it gives to the African writers and publishers who are working to create and distribute books for young readers, particularly ones that inculcate pride in African cultures.

Towards this end, several of the contributors focus on the Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Cameroonian folktales that teach children values such as obedience and patience, as well as connect them to their cultural roots. In “Archetypal Symbols in Selected Igbo Folktales,” Blessing Diala-Ogamba for example examines how folktales such as “The Flute” teach children “the importance of appreciating the good fortune of others and of imagesbeing respectful to them” (62). In the story, one boy happily shares his food with spirits and is rewarded for his generosity whilst another insults the spirits and is punished. Such attention to oral literatures in the issue is balanced by several essays addressing works that engage African children with more contemporary plots pertinent to their own lives. Patricia Emenyonu, for instance, explores how British-Nigerian writer Ifeoma Onyefulu produces picture books that reflect African, especially Nigerian, cultural practices such as baby-naming and age-grade membership. Louisa Uchum Egbunike examines the way Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor intertwines references to the Nigerian Ekpe leopard society in her young adult novel Akaka Witch (2011), adapting the genre of speculative fiction for readers of African descent.

Across the ALT issue, I would have liked to see more attention paid to how children engage with literature–how they, in their own words, interpret texts. This might have been achieved by including an article or two on children’s reading experience, complete with interviews. Instead, too often the essays in the issue make assumptions about how children read or interpret stories. This is particularly evident in the articles on folktales: for instance, is it really the case that children learn the rewards of patience from “The Story of the Leopard, The Tortoise, and the Bush Rat” as Diala-Ogamba argues? (61-62). Might some learn instead about the value of cunning, or another lesson altogether? One way to find out is to ask them.


image credit – Gregory Moines

Though he does not interview children directly in his article, Wazha Lopang demonstrates such awareness of the “slipperiness” of literature, or of the way in a single text may encode multiple, even contradictory meanings. In “The Trickster Tale in Botswana,” one of the more thoughtful essays in the issue, Lopang argues that the androgynous nature of the trickster figure in Botswanan oral narratives should not be seen as solely supporting patriarchal structures; instead, it empowers both male and female listeners. Gender is indeed treated sensitively throughout Children’s Literature and Story-telling: in a later article, Juliana Daniels argues that gender stereotypes are upheld in and, worse, propagated by certain Ghanaian children’s books.

On the whole, the essays in Children’s Literature and Story-telling are ordered coherently and edited skillfully, although I did find a few, scattered typos. The ALT issue pushes forward familiar but still exigent debates about the need for more stories set in African regions, while also shading these productively in the direction of children’s literature. Readers, writers, publishers, and scholars would do well to heed the contributors’ call to put more, and better, books in the hands of Ghanaian, Nigerian, Kenyan, and other African children.


Moellenberg Photo 1Tamara Moellenberg  is a DPhil candidate in English at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral research examines representations of child figures in selected Anglophone West African novels. She has taught courses in postcolonial, African and children’s literature.


emenyonu2015Professor Ernest Emenyonu is a specialist in African Literature and has taught African Literature at various institutions of higher learning in Nigeria and the United States. His publications include articles in leading journals of African Literature and chapters in books and anthologies on the criticism of African Literature in Africa, Europe, India and the United States.

AiW’s recent Q&A with Professor Emenyonu can be found here.


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