Reading Africa Week 2022 – Book Reviews

Today, World Kid Lit Blog Co-Editor Johanna McCalmont shares some of her favourite reads this year. Let these stories and beautiful picture books transport you to Mauritius, Kenya, or the desert sands between Mali and Mauritania!

Fadya and the Song of the River
Written by Laura Nsafou
Illustrated by Amélie-Anne Calmo
Translated by Ros Schwartz
Translated from French [France]
Published by Tate Publishing, 2022

Can you hear the tinkle of tiny bells on golden bracelets? Or the rustling of long, flowing tunics? Then you must be somewhere in the desert sands between Mali and Mauritania! Look out for the Luminaries wearing their brightly coloured head wraps as they criss-cross the desert, ready to help anyone who seeks their aid. But becoming a full member of this unique community of women, is not an easy task—as 9-year old Fadya discovers. Desperate to earn her very own golden tunic, she follows her Mama’s advice and sets out to look for someone to help. But who will call upon a little girl like her? Can she really help the fishermen in distress? Could the magical, musical gift that Fadya creates really be what the River Goddess so desperately desires?

Inspired by stories about West African legends handed down by her father, Laura Nsafou invites readers to join Fadya on her journey of self-discovery, a journey where love for others and confidence in her own creativity allow her to offer comfort to those in need and bring peace to the river.

The lyrical English translation by Ros Schwartz, and Amélie-Anne Calmo’s vibrant illustrations, brimming with strong contrasting bold colours—yellows, blues, reds and purples—capture the range of moods and emotions of the characters as they transition through highs and lows.

A heart-warming story full of the sounds and music of West Africa that reminds us no one is too young, or small, to be able to comfort others in need.  

A Dream of Birds
Written by Shenaz Patel
Illustrated by Emmanuelle Tchoukriel                       
Translated by Edwige-Renée Dro
Translated from French [Mauritius]
Published by Amazon Crossing Kids, 2022

It’s a beautiful sunny day on the island of Mauritius, but young Sara has to go to school. She drags her feet as she walks down the road past the crooked house, dreaming of the weekend. But then she notices a curious little house with a red roof in the yard. What can it be? It wasn’t there yesterday! Just as she takes a closer look and discovers all the parakeets chirping, trilling, and twittering away, an old man chases her out of the yard. Sara thinks about the birds in the cage all day, fondly remembering her late grandfather and the afternoons they would spend feeding birds in his garden together. Isn’t that the way all birds should live? Isn’t that why the door to the birdhouse is unlocked the next time she passes? Sara learns that not all birds are used to being free…yet finds comfort in a dream that carries her away to an island where, somehow, everyone finds their way.

Shenaz Patel’s poetic text, in Edwige Renée Dro’s delightful English translation, is accompanied by Emmanuelle Tchoukriel’s buzzingly bright illustrations that refresh the soul. The swimming pool blue sky and multitude of red, blue, green, yellow, pink, grey and orange birds fluttering across the pages will brighten up any dark day and hopefully also encourage readers to think more carefully about our beautiful, feathery friends.           

My Hands
Written & Illustrated by Néjib
Translated by Angus Yuen-Killick
Translated from French [France/Tunisia]
Published by Red Comet Press, 2022

This 128-page book by Tunisian-born author and illustrator Néjib is perfect for early readers discovering the world—and all the things their tiny hands can do! Starting with basic gestures, like ‘say goodbye’ or ‘ask to speak’, ‘greet ‘or ‘touch’, the illustrations soon move on to more complex actions, like ‘hands put on a show’ as they make shadows on a wall or ‘light up’ as they hold a torch.

The black outlined hands—mostly left white, occasionally coloured shades of brown—offer younger readers prompts to talk about what they see. The limited text—usually one word, or perhaps a short phrase—builds vocabulary.

All in all a delightful book to return to and flick through time and time again with tiny hands.

Mwikali and the Forbidden Mask
Written by Shiko Nguru [Kenya]
Published by Lantana Publishing, 2022

Anyone who knows me, knows I love a great story where the kids get together to solve some sort of mystery! So when I saw Mwikali and the Forbidden Mask, I knew I had to get a copy ASAP. And it certainly didn’t disappoint.

After bouncing around the world for years with her Mum’s job, 12-year-old Mwikali and her Mum have finally arrived in Nairobi, their forever home. Mwikali is relieved to be starting a new school—hopefully no one will ever find out what happened to her best friend at her last school! But it isn’t long before mysterious connections are made between Mwikali’s beloved sketch book and strange goings on at the prestigious Savanna Academy. With help from her classmates Soni, Odwar, Xirsi and her teacher Mr Lemayian, Mwikali discovers and develops her supernatural gifts as a Seer. Along the way she also learns more about her warrior ancestors than she could have ever imagined. But is everyone at school who they really appear to be? And will the young Intasimi Warriors be able to prevent the Forbidden Mask from being used for evil to destroy the world?

Shiko Nguru takes the story legend (each chapter title contains a strikethrough edit, emphasising the sense that nothing is what is seems) of Syokimau, the Great Kamba Prophetess and Medicine Woman and extends it to Mwikali’s world, connecting the modern day with a traditional Kenyan legend.   

To describe this middle-grade fantasy adventure as gripping simply does not do it justice. Readers who enjoy afro fantasy that draws on the lives of historical legends, are curious about travelling back and forth through time, and want to see good win out over evil will definitely enjoy this book! My only question is: when can I read Book Two?!

Johanna McCalmont was born in Northern Ireland and now lives in Brussels, Belgium where she works from French, German, Dutch and Italian. Her translations for children have been published by Blue Dot Kids Press. Her work has also been featured in the Los Angeles Review, Asymptote, Lunch Ticket and the European Literature Network. She loves connecting writers with audiences when interpreting at literary festivals and has a particular interest in African literature. Read more about her here.