This month’s reviews of recent and forthcoming titles comes from World Kid Lit contributor Ayo Oyeku who discusses books by creators from South Africa, Ukraine and Colombia…
By Ayo Oyeku
By Daniel Clarke, James Clarke & Daniel Snaddon
Catalyst Press (June 2023)
The resplendence of the Zambezi river pours through the opening pages of this graphic novel, in magical shades of blue, white and green. Two treasure hunters, Rock and Tongai, paddle into the innards of the river, only to find a hidden kingdom and a baby girl nestled on a bed of grass. In her eyes, Tongai sees all the orbs of light and a window into his soul. He takes her home and names her Siku.
Siku grows to become an agile young girl with buoyant and restful dreadlocks. Whenever she is not peeping from her treehouse, she’s likely sliding down the rooftop and diving into water – where she arranges the whole of her being into the open arms of the river. Siku is one with water. She even possesses a special power with which she can pull, bend and flush water like a ballet dancer at the centre stage. Yet Siku does not know the truth about herself.
Images courtesy of Catalyst Press
This secret has become a noose around Tongai’s neck. He knows Siku is the daughter of the Great River Spirit, Nyaminyami – worshipped by the Shonga people scattered across the villages and riverbeds. They all await the moment Siku will reunite with her real father so that she can perform the Rumuko ritual in order to restore balance in the Zambezi river. Tongai does not believe in the old ways. He believes the creation of the Kariba dam will bring the needed balance and ultimate growth for the community. In line with this, he goes to work at the Kariba dam, in order to save more money for Siku’s schooling in Salisbury.
This is an African fantasy-adventure graphic novel without comparison. The artworks draw the reader into Africa in a stunning appreciation for nature. The use of language, symbolism and engaging dialogue helps to keep one foot of the reader in African culture, and the other in global myth. The creators – Daniel Clarke, James Clarke and Daniel Snaddon – have made excellent synergy of their talents and experiences, to offer the world a story that cannot be ignored.
Things do not go as planned for Tongai. Siku seeks to rescue her father at the Kariba dam, leading to an unplanned adventure that puts her in harm’s way, offers her a new friendship and gives her a chance to wrestle with fate. Kariba is suitable for readers within ages 10 -14 years.
Written & Illustrated by Oleksandr Shatokhin
Published by Red Comet Press (2023)
Wordless picture book from Ukraine
I see a dark page. I see another. I see something I can’t describe. Now I see something that looks like a mesh. Indeed, it’s a barbed wire. There is a naked child behind the barbed wire. I am that child.
I don’t like the barbed wire. I can’t climb or pass through it. If I force myself against it, it will cut my tender skin. These barbed wires look like a large scary web. It’s transforming into a gigantic spider. I have to flee for safety.
What is safety in a war-torn country? I don’t know what safety is, but I’ll keep running. I dash my foot against a rock and fall face downwards. Now I’m terrified the gigantic spider might catch up with me. I cover my face in fear. I hear nothing. I feel nothing. Later, I spread my fingers apart, so I can peep through. Now I see something. Something yellow. It’s a yellow butterfly. Its colour offers me a new lease on life. Its wings rejuvenate my soul. I rise to my feet and follow the yellow butterfly. I will follow her on this journey to safety, peace and freedom.
Yellow Butterfly is a wordless picture book, filled with gripping shades of black and sparkling shades of yellow. Across sixty pages, a child is caught in a war-torn nation, and the only semblance of hope is a yellow butterfly. On their journey together, readers are reminded about the ugly scenes of war and what it means to be deprived of peace, freedom and happiness.
This book was written and illustrated by the Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Shatokhin as a response to the invasion of his country by Russia. Suitable for kids above eight years, this book also includes an author’s note and other information to help readers understand and start discussions on the theme. One single butterfly later becomes hundreds of butterflies, leading the child to freedom and boundless happiness. This book is wordless but the communication is loud and clear.
Letters in Charcoal
Written by Irene Vasco
Illustrated by Juan Palomino
Translated from Spanish [Colombia] by Lawrence Schimel
Published by Lantana Publishing (September 2023)
The letters of the English alphabet are like a glut of faces that can be seen almost everywhere. Sometimes, they are also like light bulbs in every home – illuminating but ignored.
Back in the days, in the pueblo of Palenque in Colombia, hardly anyone knew how to read. Old newspapers were used to wrap parcels and to plug cracks in the walls, yet people didn’t learn the alphabet. There were letters hanging everywhere in the house – in the kitchen, on tables, and right in front of everyone’s noses – yet still nobody read them. Everything remained the same until Gina began to receive letters from Miguel Ángel, the young doctor who had spent a few months in the pueblo.
Gina was always delighted to receive these letters each month. Each letter was kept safely in an envelope specifically addressed to her. Once the envelope was handed over to her, bubbles of joy would appear in her eyes and her younger sister could tell the letters gave Gina butterflies in her belly. Together, they would escape from prying eyes, and find a comfy position on the branch of a mango tree, where they would open the envelope and stare at the letter because neither of them could read. Gina was sure Miguel Ángel had fond memories to share with her in the letter. Her younger sister even imagined Miguel Ángel asking Gina to marry him. How sweet.
In order to satisfy her curiosity, Gina’s younger sister made it her life’s mission to unlock the secrets in the monthly letters that won’t stop coming. She sought the help of Señor Velandia, a shop owner, who knew how to read.
“I’ll teach you how to read if you help me,” he answered one day.
“Help you with what?”
“With making up the packages for the shop. You need to weigh the rice, the beans, and the corn and put them in paper bags. Each bag must weigh exactly one pound.”
Letters in Charcoal was originally written in Spanish by Irene Vasco, with the clear intent to encourage literacy amongst present day Colombians. Much like every colonized nation, there is an urgent and continuous need for the citizens to be taught how to read and write, so that all children can access the door to a promising future.
Lawrence Schimel, a gifted translator, has done an impressive job in translating this picture book into English. The choice of words and narrative pattern would easily spur fresh curiosities in little children, making them eager to see how and where the story ends. Juan Palomino, the illustrator, also holds nothing back as he graciously paints the pages and characters in colours that would evoke fine memories of childhood, classroom, and the simple things that bring joy.
Discovering that literacy comes at a little cost, Gina’s younger sister serves as a perfect help to Señor Velandia, as she unlocks how to read the alphabet. She does not keep this secret to herself, instead she extends it to Gina and other children. Excited that she and Gina can now read – even though slowly – eagerly, they await the next letter from Miguel Ángel; which they both hope would satisfy their curiosities and imaginations.
This picture book has carefully woven history and symbolism, to help children embrace literacy and the wonders that would be unlocked by doing so. Literacy is key.
Ayo Oyeku is a Fellow of Ebedi International Writers Residency. He has authored eight children’s books, and some of his books have won notable awards, including the Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Children’s Literature. He loves reading books to children, meeting writers, and speaking at literary panels. He is the Founder of Eleventh House Publishing.