Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus series (with five titles to date) may be my new favorite in the world of early chapter books (though Ivy and Bean still run a close second!). Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller currently living in Wales, has created a high-spirited, empathetic protagonist and tells of her adventures---ordinary and extraordinary---with great warmth, gentle humor, and joy. What most impresses me about these engaging books, though, is Atinuke's ability to sketch out of the complexities and nuances of Anna's world---of her large African extended family and her white Canadian mother, of their adherence to African tradition and their embrace of technology, of the families relative affluence and the desperate poverty that surrounds them---without compromising either cultural authenticity or accessibility. I also love that Antinuke offers a very different kind of family story, one in which grandparents, uncles, aunties, and siblings are as influential as parents and siblings, inviting Western readers both to question our assumptions about family life and to share Anna's delight in those relationships.
Each volume in the series is comprised of four linked stories, each of which could stand alone but is made more meaningful by its relation to the others. The stories are generously illustrated (on almost every page) by Lauren Tobia, whose lively pen and ink sketches effectively capture Anna's vivacity and deep curiosity, give personality and distinctiveness to an unusually large cast of characters, and use overlapping figures to reinforce the closeness of these relationships. Atinuke's voice is always lyrical and rhythmic, reflecting her grounding in oral storytelling, and she moves seamlessly back and forth between "the Queen's English" and African-inflected variants.
The four stories in this first volume, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Title (2011), include "Anna Hibiscus on Holiday," "Auntie Comfort," "Anna Hibiscus Sells Oranges," and "Sweet Snow" all take on profound and sophisticated themes, but do so in a way that is still engaging and understandable to a first-grader. The first of these stories establishes the theme and contours of extended family life and of different cultural values. Initially, Anna's Canadian mother desires a nuclear family vacation, but once they arrive at their destination, they quickly (and humorously) realize how much they miss and rely upon the interdependence of the extended clan. The second story deals with the hybridity of both African and immigrant identity by focusing on the return visit of an aunt who has emigrated to the US. The third story forces Anna to confront stark class differences---but does so with a delicate hand---as she inadvertently takes business away from children whose parents truly need their fruit-selling earnings. Under the guidance of her grandfather, she realizes the terrible consequences of her action and must make amends. And the final story sets the stage for the next volume, Anna's Christmas visit to Granny Canada.
Miss E's Read:
You can hear Atinuke talk briefly about the experiences that shaped Anna Hibiscus and read from the book here.
The Anna Hibiscus series has been criticized for using a generic African setting ("Africa. Amazing Africa") rather than a specific African nation. Many Western readers, the argument goes, already have trouble recognizing that Africa is not a country and tend to falsely lump all African cultures together. Atinuke explains her difficult decision---driven largely by her desire to show Western readers that Africa is far more modern, urban, and economically diverse that they assume---both in this interview by the Playing By The Book blogger and in the embedded video interview with Jack Spicer.