Anna Hibiscus is a young girl, approximately five years old (she has her first day of school in one of the books), who is a lot like the little kids I know: she likes to climb trees, play with her cousins, listen to her grandparents tell stories, swim at the beach, and sing (although audiences make her nervous). Unlike most kids I know, Anna Hibiscus also lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!) in a compound with her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and her twin brothers Double and Trouble. The books are real page turners–we find out that Anna dreams of seeing snow in the first book, and by the time she goes to visit her Granny Canada in the fourth book I was just as excited about snowmen and sledding as Anna (and I grew up in Ohio!)
Written by Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller currently living with her family in Wales, the Anna Hibiscus books paint a picture of Africa rarely seen in Children’s Literature: an Africa that is urban, with happy, comfortable people, living out their lives much like people do in the rest of the world. While most of the children’s books set in African countries that I have seen focus on either the triumph of the human spirit in times of catastrophe, like A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park or Brothers in Hope by Mary Williams (both about the Lost Boys of Sudan) or retell folk tales like The Tortoise’s Gift: A Tale from Zambia retold by Lari Don. Of course, there is nothing wrong with either of these types of children’s books per se, but as a whole children are left with a picture of Africa where either everyone is suffering the ravages of starvation or living in a timeless village setting that places Africa outside the flow of history. The Anna Hibisicus books are a welcome change. On her website, Atinuke says that she wrote Anna Hibiscus to because of the ignorance most children in the UK had about Africa. I am willing to guess that children in the United States know as little or less than the children in the United Kingdom, so I am grateful to Atinuke for writing these books.
Atinuke does not paper over the real struggles African countries, like other places across the world, have with poverty. In Anna Hibiscus, Anna becomes bored one day and decides to join the “gate girls” in selling oranges along the street outside her family’s compound. She enjoys the hustle of it and is proud of the money she has earned until her uncles come home and wonder why the gate girls haven’t been able to sell any fruit. When Anna confesses to what she has done, her family chastises her for turning the work that those children, many of whom are orphans, do into a game and thereby depriving them of their livelihood. The next day Anna spends all day walking back and forth to the fruit market to get more fruit for the gate girls so that they can make up the money lost the previous day. Thus the poverty some people in African cities face is acknowledged without judgement and without poverty becoming the defining characteristic of African life. Similarly in Hooray for Anna Hibiscus, Anna wants to see the other side of the city across the lagoon, and when finally allowed to ride the ferry, chooses to wear her best clothes. But when she gets there she learns that the other side of the city is very impoverished and she ends up giving all of the clothes she is wearing to children foraging for food in a trash heap.
But lest you think that the Anna Hibiscus series is too weighty for young readers, Anna also plays flash-light hide and seek with her cousins during a power cut (Hooray for Anna Hibiscus), gets blamed for the antics of her twin brothers (Good Luck Anna Hibiscus!), makes new friends (Have fun Anna Hibiscus!), and finds herself acting mama to a baby chick (Welcome Home Anna Hibiscus!).
What makes the Anna Hibiscus stories so wonderful is the way that Atinuke weaves the familiar and the unfamiliar so that children reading the books in the UK or US can see the ways that their lives might seem strange to other people–keeping dogs in the house, sleeping alone in a room–while normalizing things that are different from most Western children’s experiences. Deep questions of modernity and tradition, poverty and privilege, racism and acceptance, weave seamlessly into stories of visiting relatives, playing children, and making friends.
My only complaint is that Atinuke is not more specific in naming the setting of these books. We are told only that Anna lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!), and while the descriptive details of the story indicate a West African setting–a city with roads and lagoons, Harmattan winds–no explicit country is named. By not naming the setting, Atinuke unwittingly contributes to misconceptions that Africa is one homogenous place, or even a single country.
That one flaw aside, I highly recommend the Anna Hibiscus books to young readers and anyone interested in seeking out more diverse Children’s Literature.