Before Portia Dery wrote her award-winning children’s book, Grandma’s List, she had encountered only a few examples of books by Africans featuring children in Africa.
“I grew up reading books like The Baby-Sitter’s Club and Snow White,” she says. “I was fascinated by these little girls with long silky hair…with apples and cakes and ginger beer—things we don’t have in Ghana, like apple trees. It was hard for me to reconcile that; I wanted to see those kinds of stories about my life.”
When she was 10, she got a glimpse of what that recognition could mean after her father brought home the first book she ever saw by an African writer, Kwajo and the Brassman’s Secret by Meshack Asare. “Seeing an African child on the cover page really had an impact,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’d like to write a story like that one day.’ ”
Grandma’s List (Feb. 11) is that story. Fatima is eager to prove to her grandmother and the other adults in her family that she’s not just a little girl. When her Grandma needs help with a list of errands, Fatima offers to save the day.
South African illustrator Toby Newsome renders beautifully both the specific touchstones of the Ghanaian landscape—boys holding dishes of mangoes on their heads or a multigenerational family seated around the dinner table—while also offering readers a mirror of their culture in a multitude of African countries. Fatima’s boisterousness is conveyed with the same eagerness as any boy: She is perched on top of a bench with a red cloth in her hands as a cape.
In her haste, Fatima loses the list and a bit of harmless chaos ensues. Grandma’s List is a story about the grace we offer to young people—or anyone—to make mistakes. When it’s revealed at the family dinner table that her memorization skills weren’t quite what she thought they were, she is liberated by the kind laughter and understanding of her family instead of harsh judgment.
It’s a message that Dery thinks is particularly important to convey during a time when young people struggle with anxiety, depression, and high suicide rates. “It’s as much for children as it is for adults to know it’s really OK to make mistakes because life is about finding ourselves and just getting better and better,” she says. “It was for me very important for children growing up to know that even when they make mistakes, they’ll be corrected with love and the recognition that it’s not the end of the world.”
In 2014, Grandma’s List won the Golden Baobab Prize for the best picture book manuscript in Africa. This year, it won a Children’s Africana Book Award, an international prize for books for young readers about Africa published or republished in the United States.
Grandma’s List is Dery’s first published book and she is writing others. She also leads the African Youth Writers Organization, a nonprofit she founded in 2013, and through it, she has mentored hundreds of Ghanaians while organizing mobile reading clinics to encourage reading and education as a path out of poverty. Through her writing, literacy and education work, she says, she sees daily the importance of diverse narratives—and not only for children from the African Diaspora. “As black children get to read stories about themselves, white children get to read about black children too and it makes living together easier,” she says. “Once you get to learn about the culture of somebody, you learn more about them—for the children, that’s very important, they learn much more sitting next to the classmate or reading about them than what the TV or media would say.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator in New York.