Women in Translation Review: Akissi by Marguerite Abouet

With the 2020 release of the third volume of Akissi’s antics, we take a look at all three books: Tales of Mischief, More Tales of Mischief and Even More Tales of Mischief written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Mathieu Sapin. Translated from French by Marie Bédrune and Judith Taboy (Flying Eye Books).

I first came across Akissi earlier this year following a recommendation from a friend. From the moment the first sunshine-coloured book crossed our threshold, my kids, in particular my six-year-old daughter, have been hooked. And it seems I’m not the only one raving about Akissi. All three books have received starred reviews from Kirkus.

Set in the lively, bustling Côte d’Ivoire, in the introduction to the second volume, Margeurite Abouet explains how she wants to present “a different view of Africa rather than the one we are usually shown. An Africa that is full of life, rather than sorrow”. And she does exactly that.

Akissi is a young Ivorian girl who gets up to all sorts of mischief with her friends. She lives with her parents, big sister Victorine and big brother Fofana. Each mini adventure covers six sides, although as you move through the volumes, the tales become longer. The illustrations by Matthieu Sapin are lively and full of movement, the colours bright and zingy. There’s also some great back matter to the books – recipes, craft activities and one of my favourites, how to make your own “Ugly Princess Dress”.

Akissi gets caught up in all sorts of escapades and frequently avoids the worst of the telling-offs by the skin of her teeth, often blaming her big brother Fofana. Poor Fofana. He tries to be the sensible one, telling Akissi not to climb trees or trying to get her to cross the road safely, but he often gets the blame for her antics when it all goes wrong. There’s a sense of fierce loyalty among her friends: they seek revenge on the mean teacher at school, they stand up to the playground bully and set out to rescue each other as and when required.

As the books progress, there’s a definite feeling of Akissi growing up and the books themselves evolve. In the first book, the stories can be very much read as individual tales to dip into at random. By the third book, there seems to be more of a theme running throughout as Akissi is preparing, or rather trying to avoid leaving the Côte d’Ivoire for Paris. In book two, Abouet introduces some fantasy elements, rather than focusing purely on Akissi’s day-to-day antics. The topics in the stories also grow up, in book two there’s an amusing exchange about where babies come from and book three opens with a discussion about a friend whose parents are divorcing.

While these are fun, exciting graphic novels, Akissi also plays an important role in challenging stereotypes. She loves to play football but when the boys tell her she can’t, she sets out to prove them otherwise. In book two, having been told she plays football like a boy, climbs trees like a boy and doesn’t dress smart, like a boy, Akissi starts to doubt what it means to be a girl. She decides to have a chat with her big sister, who’s more like a girl “should” be. They discuss the differences between girls and boys, ending with Victorine telling Akissi she can do anything, except go to the toilet standing up… which, on further consideration, Akissi decides she can also do! For my daughter who is adventurous and strong-willed, it’s so important for her to hear that message and to have role models like Akissi who are kind and caring but also resilient and daring.

Last year I wrote a piece for Lantana Publishing about the importance of world literature for children. It is important for children of all races to find themselves reflected in characters in the books they read; thus far, as Natasha Brown writes in her 2017 piece entitled Critiquing the representations of black characters in children’s literature, representations of children of colour have been sharply limited:

“There are historical stories about Black children escaping slavery, and Asian kids in kimonos with dragons on the silk, and Native American kids in traditional garb, but these are not the imagination-expanding type of books.”

This article adds to the discussion about the need to publish books with protagonists of colour “just being people”. The Akissi series provides exactly that – Akissi is a black girl having adventures! As white children, it’s also really important that my kids are reading books featuring characters that look different to themselves, not only playing out background roles, but as the strong, leading characters. While the occasional white character does pop up in the Akissi tales, they are few and far between, the reverse of much of our usual children’s fare and I find that hugely refreshing.

There are so many reasons I love that my kids have embraced Akissi. Our copies are already looking dog-eared; they come in the car, they come outside and they’re sneakily read after lights out. So if you’re looking for a great addition to the bookshelves of a child you know, these fabulous graphic novels come highly recommended, and not just by me. Take a look at Laura Taylor’s review over at Planet Picture Book for more.

Many thanks to Flying Eye for the review copies of More Tales of Mischief and Even More Tales of Mischief.

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