We both have several books about, set in, or written by authors from South Africa. From the children's version of Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom" to the classic "Journey to Jo-Burg" by Beverly Naidoo, Toby has realised for a long time that this is a complex country. Some of the reviews we have carried together here are therefore a bit older :)
Toby: Journey to Jo'Burg, by Beverly Naidoo (read when Toby was 6)
We bought this book when Nelson Mandela died, but it took us a while to read it. I didn't like how people weren't all treated the same, because that isn't right. Naledi and Tiro were very brave to go travelling all by themselves.
Toby: The Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela (written when he was 6)
I wrote a letter to Nelson Mandela when he was sick, because I wanted to thank him for making the world a better place. I had several non-fiction books about him, but after he died, this book came out, which is all about his life. I liked reading about his childhood.
Toby: Operation Rhino, by Lauren St John
I think you should read the rest of the series before this one, because there are lots of references to the other books in this one. Lauren St John was born in Zimbabwe, but because the book takes place in South Africa, we are putting it here, and we have another book by another Zimbabwean author for Zimbabwe, too.
'Race you to the bottom of the hill,' said Ben, reining in Shiloh, his new pony. 'Last one there washes the dishes after breakfast.'
Ben and Martine are best friends, and always love to race. However, Martine is not riding a pony, she is riding a white giraffe, who got saved in a previous book. Martine used to live in England, but her parents died in a fire, and Martine came to live with Ben and his family in South Africa. In this book, Martine and Ben go on a rhino-saving adventure. It all starts on the Stars and Stripes Safari. Martine's favourite band are there, as well as some hunters and some surfers. The hunters say they have hunted bears in Romania, but that they don't want to kill any African animals. Right at the end of the tour, Martine shows Jayden, the leader of her favourite band, the hidden spot of where the rhinos are, a mother and a child. But she doesn't know what's about to happen.
A few days later.
BANG! Martine wakes up in the middle of the night and runs downstairs. There is a big helicopter, and in it, she sees the shadow of a man with a gun. One of the rhinos has been hit. It was the mother! Martine and Ben need to take the baby to another reserve!
I liked this book because it is very action-packed, and when you read it, you get a very good picture of what is happening. It was very enjoyable to read, and probably in the age range of 7-15. This isn't just an adventure book, it's a bit of a magic book, too. Martine has healing powers, and my favourite part of this book was right at the end - you'll have to read it to find out.
Sabine: The Cry of Winnie Mandela, by Njabulo Ndebele
I was a teenager when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and, like many others of my generation, I read the books that were popular in that era - I read Donald Woods' "Biko" and John Briley's "Cry Freedom" (though I never watched the film), and Winnie Mandela's "Part of my Soul". Around the same time, I also read another book, Doris Lessing's "Desdemona, if only you had spoken". Out of all books, this one stayed with me the most, even though it isn't (at first glance) related to the topic here. Doris Lessing gave voice to female characters - both in history and in literature - allowing them long monologues where they had a chance to explain themselves, to flesh out their characters, to be "more". I always thought they were the perfect monologues - innovative, fairly unknown, and interesting. Ndebele's book reminds me of this. Four women, at first disconnected from each other, are waiting. For various reasons, they are finding themselves without a husband - one went away to study, one went away to work, one died, one went into exile - all legitimate reasons, but as months drag into years, the women experience a kind of limbo. Society has certain expectations, and they are trapped in their existence, no matter what they do. When they meet (it is not described how, nor does it matter, there is a "meta" quality to this book, where the characters themselves seem aware of their imaginary existence), they decide to play a game, each looking to address Winnie Mandela, a waiting woman like they are, but waiting much more publicly. They ask questions, they draw out things they have heard, seen and read, and they engage with their own experiences in relation to Winnie's, inviting her to join their circle. When she does, she becomes one of them - questioning, searching, reflecting, acknowledging.
I found this book utterly fascinating - like the monologues composed by Doris Lessing, here are women who are given a voice to express themselves. But of course, it is their imagined voices, imagined by authors who have a way with words (at the time of the publication of the book, Ndebele was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town), and who can make us listen. This book reminds me of people whose stories need to be told, and consider the complexities of who might have the right, the ability, and the connections to tell those stories.
As has happened quite a few times, we actually have more books than just one each for Nigeria. However, since both these reviews have been "hovering" in the draft folder for a while, we decided to get the first "tranche" of Nigeria books out, and we will follow up with a Part 2 in a while. We are still catching up with each other, and must co-ordinate our reading better! :)
Toby: Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor
This book is about a normal girl who has a friend, who has a friend, and they all become friends together. Suddenly, Sunny, the main character, gets taken into a world of magic, because her two friends are magic. She passes the test to start working magic, but nobody else in her family has magic, she is a "free agent", somebody who doesn't come from a magical family.
Sunny is an albino, so her skin has no pigment, and in several African countries, being an albino is linked to lots of superstitions. So to have a character like this, and a girl, who is strong and powerful is really cool. I think this book would be great for anybody who understands that life can sometimes be hard - Akata is a word used to describe African Americans in the Yoruba language, and Sunny was born in America, although her parents were born in Nigeria, so Sunny is a little bit of an outsider. People say it is the Nigerian Harry Potter - I think this might be true, especially if you understand that the context is very different, and that's what I like about it. We have pre-ordered the sequel (it's coming out 3rd October), and I can't wait for it to come out!
Sabine: Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi
This book wasn't at all what I expected. I have had it for a few years (swapped in a coffeehouse with a bring-and-swap shelf), and when Toby decided on his challenge, I looked at my (rather large) To Be Read pile and pulled it out. Originally, I was intrigued by the references made to a child inhabiting two cultural worlds, but upon opening the novel, I realised there was much more to it than a child trying to find her identity.
Jessamy is eight years old when, on a trip to Nigeria, she first encounters the mysterious Tilly, a girl only she can see, but who nevertheless seems to have some power to interact with the real world. Over time, Tilly's intentions appear more and more sinister, hurting and threatening anybody who might stand in the way of her relationship with Jess, but Jess struggles to distance herself from her. The boundaries between reality, dream, magic and imagination are constantly shifting, and readers who expect an "explanation at the end of it all" will be disappointed.
Helen Oyeyemi was four years old when she moved from Nigeria to England, and still at school when she wrote the book. The Icarus Girl is a powerful and disturbing debut novel, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Oyeyemi's work.
For Sudan, Toby has read a book that is not actually by a Sudanese author - however, he enjoyed it very much, and so, we wanted to include it. The book we have chosen for Egypt, by an Egyptian author, will feature Sudan again...a bit :)
oby: A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
A Long Walk to Water is a book about the Lost Boys of Sudan. These were 20,000 boys displaced by the Second Civil War in Sudan, which lasted from 1983-2005. Salva’s story starts in 1985. He is a young boy from the village of Loun-Ariic. One day, the rebels blow up his school and he gets separated from his parents. He then meets his uncle, and goes on a trip to a camp in Ethiopia. He meets lots of friends, but the rebels find them and make them swim the river going from Ethiopia to Kenya. Many get swallowed whole by alligators, and many get shot by the rebels. We follow Salva over several years as he tries to find his way to Kenya, and to safety.
The book changes narrators, as well as Salva, there is Nya. Her story takes place in 2008, after the civil war ended, and we first meet her when she fetches water, which takes her half a day. Salva’s story spans several years, Nya’s story lasts only a day.
I liked this book because it based on a true story. Salva is a real person, and the author’s descriptions are very good. The book wasn’t always easy to read, because you know that real people got hurt, but I think it is important to know happened in Sudan, and this is a good way for children to learn a bit about it.
Sabine: Telepathy, by Amir Tag Elsir
I enjoy books that mix reality with the surreal, and Elsir's short novel certainly delivers on this. An unnamed, celebrated Sudanese author begins to suspect that one of the characters in his latest novel - a poor man called Nishan Hamza Nishan, first a messenger in a school, before he takes it upon himself to gain an education with the aim of becoming a lawyer - is in fact based on a real person, of the same name. A friend of the writer suspects that Elsir may have been told Nishan's story telepathically, but Nishan is only part way through his own story, and in "Hunger's Hopes", the novel, an unpleasant fate awaits him. This leaves the author with a dilemma. Is he responsible for his characters, even in real life? Should he take it upon himself to try and change Nishan's fate - if it is his fate at all?
The book is set in Khartoum, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the Sudanese capital, as well as references to political occurrences, and seeing some of the views on Sudan and South Sudan through the eyes of somebody local. Elsir's descriptions are vivid, and the premise of the book was exciting. However, I found it difficult to warm to any of the characters - the women in Elsir's novel are difficult to engage with, since they seem very "polar" in character. The men are more interesting, but somehow always written at arm's length, as though there is a final piece missing. Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this book.
We have a very special reason to find out more about Zambia - in just under a month's time, we will be heading off to volunteer with the amazing charity Book Bus, to work in local primary schools for two weeks. Thanks to a briefing day in London and following the work the Book Bus does for the past two years, we have a pretty good idea what to expect...in theory. Theory is a wonderful thing, but it is not the same as practice, and it will certainly be the first experience of this kind for Toby. As always with our projects, the idea for volunteering originated with him, and he is, as you would say in England "well up for it". When we tried to find books to prepare, we found a few suitable candidates - fewer for children than for adults. Our copy of "Wandi's Little Voice", a battered second-hand copy, took no fewer than 7 weeks to arrive. Still, it did arrive, and in time for Toby to read it!
Toby: Wandi's Little Voice, by Ellen Banda-Aaku
Wandi has a horrible life, or has she? Wandi is playing on the streets, but her mother is about to strike. She grabs. Wandi screams. She pulls Wandi’s ear all the way home whilst saying “Aunt Betty is coming to visit, get yourself looking beautiful!” Wandi’s mother thinks looking beautiful is very important. Wandi is not allowed to play with children she wants to play with, because they are not “right”, her mother says. Her mother is always about fashion. She always has lipstick or lip gloss on, things Wandi doesn’t care about.
Now, you might be asking yourselves: Where is Wandi’s father? Wandi’s father and mother had a massive argument a few years ago, so Wandi’s father doesn’t come to visit any more, except for one day, when her father takes Wandi out for the day, and they have lots of fun, but something bad is about to happen in their family. Wandi’s father is very busy, because he is a doctor, but the family still don’t have a lot of money, they have a guitar with two broken strings fixed with sticky tape.
Throughout the whole book, Wandi feels never listened to – she only has a “little voice”, but she has to learn to be confident and courageous as she grows up.
This story is interesting and exciting. This book can catch probably anybody’s attention with its amazing front cover and brilliant blurb. The style of the writing that says “Wandi’s Little Voice” is an interesting font. My favourite part was at the end, so I don’t want to tell you and give it away – you’ll have to read it to find out!
Sabine: A Cowrie of Hope, by Binwell Sinyangwe
The lengths a mother will go through to provide for her child is the main premise of this moving short novel. Everything Nasula does revolves around her daughter - even her name, Nasula, means "Mother of Sula", and the reader does not discover her given name until the final pages of the book. Sula, the daughter, is the "Cowrie of Hope", hope for a way out of poverty in the Zambia of the '90s, where droughts and politics have made it difficult to eke a living in the countryside. The bag of beans Nasula is looking to sell is "the hope for the hope". If Nasula can sell the beans, she will be able to fund her daughter's continued education - consequences for Sula and alternative future pathways without an education are hinted at not so subtly, both in the city and in the village. Although the mother's own future is uncertain if she sells her beans, rather than eating them, she does not hesitate. But can she navigate Lusaka's market and its people to bring the desired outcome?
Sinyangwe takes on a female perspective in his second novel - a widow, shunned by her husband's family, sole provider for her daughter, who has to overcome incredible odds to enable her daughter to access education. Nasula is shown as a strong and resourceful woman, her many tears shed are never for herself, they are tears of desperation and helplessness. First forced to overcome her pride when she sets off to ask her husband's family for help, then setting off to sell what was meant to be her own food source, the story is in turns heart-wrenching and uplifting, when Nasula meets kind souls along her journey.
The book is quite short (150 pages), but the journey it describes is a long one - emotional, powerful, and well worth reading.
Sabine: Patchwork, by Ellen Banda-Aaku
Toby enjoyed his book by Ellen Banda-Aaku so much that we looked out additional books by her. "Patchwork" won the Penguin Prize for African Writing and was short-listed for the 2012 Commonwealth Book prize. The book follows "Pumpkin", a Zambian girl, first as a 9-year-old girl, then as a grown woman. Daughter of a mistress of a well-to-do man, Pumpkin is used to "Tata" arriving and leaving intermittently. When her mother's problems with alcohol become too obvious to conceal, Tata takes his daughter away, to live on his farm with his wife and their sons. "Mama T" is as cold as Tata is warm and generous, and Pumpkin struggles to find a way to fit in, especially as she realises that her mother was not Tata's first mistress, and won't be his last.
This book took several unexpected turns - Pumpkin herself is not your typical blameless, hard-done-by heroine, she lies and steals, then feels sorry, but unable to help herself. Her small acts of rebellion are ways to fell some sense of power in a world where everything is decided by grown-ups around her. At some point, Pumpkin remarks that, on television, grown-ups apologise to children. "I have never had an adult apologise to me", she muses. Pumpkin has a temper, and she doesn't lose it as an adult. She struggles to trust the people around her, including her husband in the second part of the book. Her flaws make her much more real, caught in a world between customary beliefs, religion, and science, drawn out in stark detail when her mother gets sick.
The "Patchwork" in the title refers to lies people tell, and hurt they cause each other - even if you mend the hurt, a scar remains, and the more often you cause pain, the harder it is to mend, until your life resembles a patchwork of hurt and apologies. I am very glad I found the author through Toby's book, and will be reading more of her work.
My name is Toby, and I am 10 years old. I have written letters to every country in the world - you can read about that adventure at my other website, Writing to the World. Some letters are published in a book called "Dear World, How Are You?". In order to learn more about the countries I am writing to, I am reading books, and I am reviewing them here. I also review books for LoveReading4Kids, and those reviews are on here, too. I am trying to find one book set in each country, or by an author from that country. My Mum is doing the same for grown-up books, and I am reviewing mine, and she is reviewing hers. So whether you are a child or a grown-up, you can explore the world with us :)