I’m always on the look-out for early chapter book series for my daughter – and this certainly fits the bill.
Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke. Narrated by Mutiyat Ade-Salu. Walker Books, 2007 (UK) Kane/Miller, 2010 (US). Recorded Books, 2012.
This is more a series of linked short stories than a coherent novel – which is just fine. Every story starts the same way: “Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.” They go on to tell stories about a little girl growing up in a big, beautiful compound filled with aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as her parents, grandparents, and her twin baby brothers, Double and Trouble. In the first story, Anna Hibiscus’s mother, who is from Canada, talks wistfully about growing up with her own room. “They made you sleep alone?” asks the grandmother. Anna Hibiscus is horrified at the thought, but her father decides to try it. He rents a vacation cottage on the beach for just the five of them – only to bring back one section of the family after another, finding that the family only works right when it’s all together. This was a story that particularly resonated with me and my friends, as the aunties tell Anna’s mother when they come, “Three children and a husband are too much for one woman alone. We must help each other!” But the humor and the warm message were appreciated by all of us.
In other stories, Anna Hibiscus and her grandfather get ready for a visit from Anna’s youngest aunt, Auntie Comfort, who lives in America – they are both worried that she might have forgotten how to do things “the proper African way”. The story makes it clear that “the proper African way” is a mix of modern and traditional, including cell phones, working mothers, but old-fashioned manners and traditional clothing. In the most painful story, Anna Hibiscus longs for a life seeing the world, like the poor girls who sell oranges outside her compound gates, only to have to fix, with help from Grandfather, the problems she causes. In the last story, Anna Hibiscus shares her love of snow and hopes to visit her “Granny Canada” in winter, so she can see it for the first time.
My daughter really loved repeating the opening of the story –we had to listen to this audiobook at least six times before she let me take it back to the library. She was also very taken with the names of Anna’s family members, from Uncle Bizi Sunday to Cousin Chocolate and Cousin Angel. Atinuke is an oral storyteller, and this clearly shows in these stories, which have a lovely cadence when read aloud. We enjoyed listening to this first book on audio, read by Mutiyat Adi-Salu with an accent in between American and Canadian for the narrative parts and a Nigerian accent for everyone besides Anna’s mother. I love hearing the music of the language, but we also enjoyed the pictures in the print version of the next book, Hooray for Anna Hibiscus, which we went on to straight away. Africa is such a big continent that I wished that the story said what country Anna Hibiscus lives in – but this is small potatoes for a book that is otherwise nearly perfect.
My library now owns all of the books. We have half the series out ourselves, though as my daughter insisted on taking them in to school to share with her class, we haven’t read past the first two yet ourselves.
I don’t know enough other books for this age range about children outside the U.S. or the U.K., but this works well with Stories Julian Tells, which also feature a warm, realistic family introduced through linked short stories.