Kids Read … Somalia

Continuing our celebration of #ReadingAfrica week 2021, Lori of Kids Read the World introduces us to four picture books and a graphic novel about Somalia and by Somali authors…

By Lori

I recently stumbled on a graphic novel, completely not my forte, which I absolutely loved every minute of. I had heard good things about When Stars are Scattered from adult and kid Bookstagrammers alike, not something that happens every day. They were not wrong. When Stars are Scattered, which you can read more about below, is the reason I added Somalia to our list of countries to read this month.

I thought going in that Somalia might be a difficult country to find children’s books for, but I was pleasantly surprised that there have been numerous books published about Somalia, and by Somalian authors recently. The Somali Bilingual Book Project, part of The Minnesota Humanities Center, has published four traditional Somali folktales in both English and Somali. Their goal was to “ensure the community has high-quality authentic resources that promote and preserve heritage languages and increase English literacy skills of refugee and immigrant families” (quoted from their website). I was able to borrow one this week from our local library. I’m going to continue to look for the others, and will update my list once I can get my hands on them. There are teaching resources for all four books on their website.

If you know of any other great picture books set in, or about Somalia, please let me know so I can do a follow up post!


Picture books

Spirit of the Cheetah: A Somali Tale

“Roblay reached the bank of the river and climbed out. His heart beat with fear. The cheetah’s heart pounded with equal speed. Slowly Roblay raised his hand, shiny with the water of the great river.”

Spirit of the Cheetah: A Somali Tale, by Karen Lynn Williams & Somali-born Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Julia Cairns, published by Wisdom Tales Press, is inspired by the storytelling Khadra heard from her father growing up.

Roblay spent his days running, to fetch water, buy food, and while his friends played, all so he could be one of the top runners in the big race, proving he is a man. When he is not victorious, his grandfather tells him a story to quiet his worries about never becoming a man. His story describes a time when cheetahs were as plentiful and the land was bountiful.  He explains that Roblay must mark a cheetah with his thumb in order to prove himself.  As Roblay watches a cheetah over time, he learns to move with grace, his muscles become sleek, he learns patience, and he finally gets to mark the cheetah with his thumbprint. His grandfather is not surprised when he is one of the top three during the next big race.

An author’s note at the beginning of the book explains how Khadra’s family was forced into exile the year she was born, and how she grew up longing to one day visit the Somalia she had only heard about in stories. Back matter provides more information about cheetahs.

After reading this book, there was only one thing my girls could do, run. They had running races in the house, running races on the lawn, and became intrigued by how fast different animals could run. They watched squirrels and birds move, and tried to catch them like Roblay caught the cheetah. It was a fun response to this wonderful story!

I borrowed this book from our local library.

The Color of Home

“‘It’s our home in Somalia,’ said Hassan. ‘I know,’ said his mother. ‘We’ll put it on the wall of our home here in America.’”

The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman & Karin Littlewood, published by Penguin Putnam Books, tells the story of Hassan, a boy from Somalia, who is frightened during his first day of school in America, until his teacher sets out paints, and he finds a way to tell his story.

This seemingly simple story can open the doors to a lot of important ideas and conversations: war, refugees, immigration, family, starting at a new school. The story does discuss the death of one of Hassan’s family members, so make sure you are ready to have conversations about war before reading this book to your children.

I borrowed this book from our local library.

Muktar and the Camels

“He dreams of treasuring camels like his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, back through all the generations of the Somali people.”

Muktar and the Camels, by Janet Graber & Scott Mack, published by Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt & Company), is set in a refugee camp on the border between Kenya & Somalia. Muktar, an orphan, remembers a time before drought and war, when his family relied on camels for their survival. He longs for these old ways. One day, while dozing during school, a librarian arrives with books, books on camels! Muktar is most excited to see camels again, but is distraught when he discovers one of them is hurt. He tries to get an adult’s help, but ends up helping the camel himself, with the only piece of the past he has left. When the librarian discovers what he has done, he asks him to travel with him and take care of the camels, something Muktar is very happy to do.

My girls were very intrigued with the camels in this book. They don’t have much experience reading about camels, and have never seen one. After reading this story, we did a little research online and in the library, and learned a lot. My 4 year old had some questions about the refugee camp where Muktar lived, and about a nomads. This book introduced us to a whole new way of life! I think it’s wonderful the Kenya National Library Service delivers books to schools and orphanages in their area by camel, something I had never thought about before.

I borrowed this book from our local library.

Wiil Waal: A Somali Folktale

“It can be a symbol of greed or of generosity. Greed or generosity, in turn, divide people or unite them.”

Wiil Waal: A Somali Folktale, by Kathleen Moriarty & Somali-born Amin Amir, translated by Somali-born Jamal Adam, and published by Minnesota Humanities Center, is a bilingual book which is part of the Somali Bilingual Book Project. This book is part of a program that helps families develop their English literacy skills, while still recognizing and supporting their home languages. There are resources on their website (www.minnesotahumanities.org) for using this book, as well as a few other books they have published.

The story is based on the historical figure of Sultan Garad Farah Garad Hirsi, also known as Wiil Waal, who was said to be able to unite people through the use of riddles. Wiil Waal sets a challenge in his region. He asks the people to bring him one part of a sheep that symbolizes what can divide people or unite them as one. A poor man, with numerous children, is hesitant to kill his best sheep, but does so in order to solve the sultan’s riddle. When his oldest daughter suggests a part of the sheep that is usually discarded, he is unsure, but decides to trust her. She is in fact very wise, and the Sultan suggests she one day rule the land.

I borrowed this book from our local library.

If you’re going to purchase any of these books, please consider using my Kids Read the World Bookstore (affiliate link at Bookshop.org). Bookshop.org supports local bookstores with every sale.

Graphic novel

When Stars are Scattered, by Victoria Jamieson & Somalian refugee Omar Mohamed (Dial Books/Faber), shocked me in so many ways.

I am not drawn to graphic novels, and honestly before reading this book did not think too highly of them. My mind has been changed. The emotion and struggles that are expertly conveyed using kid-friendly language and bold, modern illustrations left me in awe. The format allowed for the author/illustrator to express so much more than prose would have on their own. I also think the graphic novel format will engage readers that are not normally interested in refugee experiences, something I am all for.

While reading this book I was forced to grapple with my own beliefs about education, fate, power of self, taking responsibility, people with disabilities, health, family, community, and gender roles, and this book is aimed at middle grade readers! I had no idea I was going to have to do so much thinking when I picked this book up.

I was impressed how despite the hardships, disappointments, and struggles the characters faced, there was still such a strong sense of hope throughout the entire book. Hope is a theme I am finding in many of the books I have read from countries in turmoil during the past few months. Something I’m going to think more about.

I can understand why this book is up for consideration for so many awards. It will have a permanent place in my home and classroom library, and I will be trying books outside my comfort zone a little more often moving forward.

5/5 stars

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I’d love to hear what books, projects, artists, music, and other fun things you’d recommend from Somalia. Email me, message me, or comment/DM on Instagram.

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Lori is a US-based mother of two girls (4 years old, and 2 years old), a wife, a special education teacher in a public school, and a picture book lover. While homebound because of Covid-19, she decided to give her girls a taste of all the things this big wide world has to offer, to broaden their hearts and minds using her favorite thing…picture books! Since March they have been on a world tour using picture books. This year her 4th grade students are also involved, and are loving listening to all the wonderful stories she has found. You can find her on Instagram at @kidsreadtheworld, at kidsreadtheworld@gmail.com and on her blog at Kids Read the World.