#ReadingAfrica: Ugandan Picture Books

As we continue our celebration of #ReadingAfrica Week, today we head over to Australia where Laura Taylor has been reviewing picture books from Uganda. Reposted with her permission, Laura’s book reviews were first published on her blog Planet Picture Book

By Laura Taylor

Sing to the Moon

Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl, illustrated by Sandra van Doorn (Lantana Publishing, 2018)

It’s raining outside, but Jjajjia and his grandson share a wonderful day of activities, stories and memories.

Sing to the Moon is the most recent of two picture books set in Uganda written by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and illustrated by Sandra van Doorn – and what a beauty it is!  A young boy dreams of flying, sailing, feasting and wondering, but his reality is far different. He wakes to grey skies, rain and the gloomy prospect of a day of boredom ahead of him. Jiajja, his grandfather, has other plans, however. The pair pack away peas in the storeroom and prepare food for a fish stew, while Jjajja shares childhood memories of friends and fishing. As day continues into evening, Jjajja reveals a glorious stack of books filled with stories – and his superlative talent as a storyteller.

This is a touching and warm tale that highlights the strong intergenerational bond between the young boy and his grandfather. They work side by side, they discover a shared love for guava trees, they explore the pages of storybooks by candlelight and listen to the sounds of the evening (after the rain). The connection between them is reinforced by Sandra van Doorn’s magical illustrations: Jjajjia looks across at his grandson as the boy cleans tilapia for the fish stew; the pair hug under the night sky; Jjiajja lays a gentle hand on his grandson’s shoulder as they perch on a tree branch.

The theme of stories and memories runs as a constant thread throughout the picture book. Jjajjia tells his grandson snippets of information about his childhood, and tales that have been passed down through the ages:

…tales of lost cities and great heaps of gold/…African kingdoms and sights to behold.”

There is a real sense of continuity – of preserving family memories and literary heritage by sharing stories with the younger generation. And, of course, Jjajjia and his grandson are creating a new set of memories for themselves, of magical moments spent together on a rainy day.

Written in rhyming verse (although this is not immediately obvious from the format), the text has a lovely flow and feel, especially when read aloud. As in her first picture book Sleep Well, Siba and Saba, Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl incorporates a number of references to Uganda, where the story is set, including a chatty and informative letter to the reader in the back matter. Here, we learn that Jjajjia is the Lugandan word for ‘grandfather’ and that Uganda has two very long rainy seasons, as well as some remarkable flora and fauna. I love that illustrator Sandra van Doorn has printed the words ‘Product of Uganda’ on the bags of peas, too! The context provides a fascinating extra dimension (or reassuring familiarity) to a story that is sure to appeal to children and adults everywhere.

Sing to the Moon is a wonderfully comforting read, especially at bedtime, when children can sleep safe in the knowledge that they are loved. And wake up knowing that a day of discovery lies ahead of them, rain or shine!

Sleep Well, Siba and Saba

Sleep Well, Siba and Saba by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl, illustrated by Sandra van Doorn (Lantana Publishing, 2017)

Siba and Saba lose things every day – sweaters, slippers, sandals, a sash, a shawl; lots of things that start with ‘s’, in fact. Thankfully, they don’t lose each other! The sisters find the things they have lost in their dreams; snapshots of nature in action (a leaping impala and a fluttering sunbird) show what distracted them from keeping a closer eye on their belongings. As the story progresses, however, so do their dreams. Siba and Saba no longer look back on events that have happened– and objects they have lost – but events and objects that lie in the future. I love that one of these concerns their future education. A new world of choice and opportunity is opening up for them!

The story is beautifully and simply told making it accessible for even the youngest of readers. I particularly enjoyed the references to Uganda where the tale is set: the characters’ names, the Ssese islands and Sipi Falls, two words in an unfamiliar language ‘Sula bulungi’ (clearly explained in context), and wildlife such as the leaping impala mentioned above. And I do love the repeated ‘s’ sound woven into the fabric of the text; it washes over the reader like a gentle, soothing wave making this such a good book to end a busy day.

The illustrations have a dreamlike quality about them that enhances the magic and wonder of the story. Siba and Saba lie sleeping atop mountains of brightly-coloured cushions, sweaters drift through a twinkly urban landscape like kites on strings, tiny yellow songbirds clutch lollipops in their beaks, Saba floats on a giant leaf at the foot of a waterfall. The artwork is pure unadulterated joy! And there are dashes of humour sprinkled in there, too. Special mention goes to the little brown dog who appears in many of the spreads – Miss 4 adores its hilarious antics!

Sleep Well, Siba and Saba is a special book that both soothes the soul and predicts an exciting future of choice and opportunity. Let the story work its magic and, before you know it, you and your listeners will be asleep atop a mountain of brightly-coloured cushions dreaming of waterfalls and sunbirds . . . or perhaps, a neatly starched school uniform!

The Rock and Roll Rolex 

The Rock and Roll Rolex by Cathy Kreutter, illustrated by Andrew Jackson Obol (Cornerstone Development, 2018)

If you think that this is a story about a luxury watch brand, then it’s time to think again. A ‘rolex’ as it turns out is a street food speciality sold across Uganda – a chapati filled with scrambled eggs, cabbage, tomato and onion, which is then rolled up.

I love that this simple snack is the main focus of this picture book from Uganda. No sooner has the rolex been rolled and wrapped by Ochan the Rolex Man than a freak occurrence (a rock, in fact) sends it soaring into the air and away from a very hungry customer. Up, up it goes before landing at the top of a very steep hill, right in front of a rat who can’t believe his luck. Rat takes off in hot pursuit of the unexpected breakfast bounty, soon followed by a cat, a dog, a boy and the boy’s mother. It’s a straightforward, wonderfully fun concept where each double spread introduces a new character, and each character chases the one in front down the very steep hill. And, of course, it allows for a lot of repetition, which is perfect for language learners or early independent readers.

Unbelievably, the rolex ends up at its starting point (another freak rock occurrence) with its pursuers piled one on top of the other, wondering why on earth they had been running. Apart from Rat, of course, who knew exactly what he was chasing down the hill. The moral of the tale (there is one, and no I’m not giving it away here!) is simply brilliant. Plus it made me chuckle.

Andrew Jackson Obol’s colourful cartoon-style illustrations set the story in context – check out that nod to Uganda on the cover! As well as the main characters and action, I particularly enjoyed exploring the backdrops – the local shops, signs, street scenes with people going about their everyday business . . . the little details. The artwork also adds much to the fun, humour and action of the story. Rat is a fabulous character, with his expressive black eyes, protruding front teeth and long, skinny body. As for the chase, you can feel the movement on every page.

The picture book includes a handy page at the back that explains what a ‘rolex’ is and provides a recipe so you can make your own (yum!)

On Exploring Ugandan Picture Books (from Australia)

During WorldKidLit month, I read an interview with the fabulous team at Not Another Book Podcast where they recommended a number of books, including Sleep Well, Sibi and Saba by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl, illustrated by Sandra van Doorn. They also mentioned the Sooo Many Stories initiative in Uganda. I decided it was high time I explored this east-central African country!

Sooo Many Stories, I found out, was initially set up as a blog by Nyana Kakoma to show readers that Ugandan writers have a wealth of wonderful tales to tell. It is also the driving force behind The Fireplace Tot Tales, a monthly book club which aims to promote a love of reading amongst children aged 4-12. Now a fledgling publishing house (as well), Sooo Many Stories recently put out a call for submissions of ‘fun, innovative and mind-stimulating’ children’s stories from Ugandan writers. Sooo, watch their space!

40 Days Over 40 Smiles, a youth-led charity organisation based in Uganda’s capital Kampala, also has a keen focus on children’s literature. This year, through their Angaza Literacy Program they published four children’s books written by Ugandan authors under the theme ‘For the Children We Were.’ You can read a review of the series on their website.

Book Aid International has been active in Uganda since 1963, and works in partnership with National Library of Uganda (NLU). The charity has created Children’s Corners in ten public libraries as well as bringing a world of reading material – including African and Ugandan stories – in the form of e-books to children. Book Aid has also established over 125 school libraries and provides books to community libraries and primary and secondary schools across the country.

Uganda also has its first mobile library, set up in 2014 by English teacher and publisher Rosey Sembataya. Her aim: to build ‘a generation of book guzzlers.’ The Malaika Mobile Library delivers books to children via motorbike taxis, or boda bodas as they are known in Uganda, for an annual fee of around US$30. Readers are encouraged to guzzle up to three books a week – a good deal for eager readers in a country where books are seen as prohibitively expensive.

In terms of picture books available to readers outside Uganda, there are not just one but two wonderful titles by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl, illustrated by Sandra van Doorn, published by UK-based Lantana Publishing. The author was born in the US to Ugandan parents and has worked for last 10 years in international development in East and Southern Africa. Sandra van Doorn was born in France, studied Art in Canada, and now lives and works in Australia.

I struggled to find other titles, so reached out to Sooo Many Stories for recommendations. They suggested I take a look at picture books by Cathy Kreutter, writer and librarian at the International School of Uganda. Originally from the US, Cathy Kreutter has been based in Uganda since 1985. She worked as teacher librarian at the International School of Uganda for 25 years and now writes and publishes children’s books, working closely with Ugandan illustrators. She is based in Kampala, Uganda. A selection of her books is available on Amazon (and a slightly smaller selection on Amazon Australia).

The illustrator Andrew Jackson Obol was born and raised in Uganda. He is currently based in Edmonton, Canada where he works as a freelance illustrator specialising in story-boarding, concept art and children’s book illustration. In 2014, he was artist-in-residence at Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton.

I did happen on a short picture book, Courageous Weaverbird by Evangeline L. Barongo, illustrated by Samuel Muganga, when I visited the exhibition of 2018 IBBY Honour Books in Canberra in OctoberThe author, a retired librarian, has written a number of children’s books and is the leader of the Ugandan Children’s Writers and Illustrators Association (IBBY Uganda). I could not find these titles available for purchase online.


Thank you Laura for sharing your book reviews with us, and for the background into your search for Ugandan picture books.

Readers, what are your favourite books by Ugandan authors and illustrators? Please do share your recommendations on social media with the hashtag #ReadingAfrica and #WorldKidLit!


Laura Taylor is a writer, translator and children’s literature enthusiast. In 2017, she set out to research, read and review picture books from every country in the world, and founded a blog, Planet Picture Book, to share her findings. She also writes a monthly book review for the WorldKidLit Wednesday column on the Global Literature in Libraries blog. Originally from the UK, she is now based near Lake Macquarie in Australia.