Last weekend I attended a conference on children’s literature, co-sponsored by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. As is wont to happen at such gatherings, I returned feeling invigorated. I find that we teachers, librarians and other practitioners in the field of children’s literature occasionally need the shot in the arm these gatherings provide. They can remind us why we chose to study children’s literature in the first place and, in our world of standardized testing and hyper-scheduled school days, what it means to impart the love of reading to a child.

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To help us along was author Jack Gantos. He kicked off the conference speaking, with passion and his wicked-sharp wit, about the notion of reading books with children for pleasure. If you think this is redundant, note that in many instances in this country we’ve strayed. Many people, parents and educators alike, see reading children’s books as a means to an end, as a task to be checked off their list in order to meet one educational goal or another, forgetting the intrinsic rewards of a good story. And, in discussing the genius of such books Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad tales and James Marshall’s Miss Nelson is Missing, Gantos reminded everyone that children can also learn empathy and kindness from well-developed children’s book protagonists. They can experience vicariously what it means to forgive someone. Empathy, kindness, forgiveness, all wrapped up in captivating stories. I think we’d all agree these are things the world could use a lot more of.  

Anna Hibiscus! I thought to myself as he spoke. And not without a smile. The day before the conference, I had read to my 5-year-old the first two titles of four in a series about a young African girl, living in a commune with her huge family. Anna Hibiscus is the star of these absorbing chapter books, originally published by Walker Books in London and brought to the States by Kane Miller. The books are written by Atinuke, a Nigerian storyteller, who spent her childhood in both Africa and the UK and now lives in Wales, and illustrated by British artist Lauren Tobia. These short books, near to dripping with charm and warmth and child appeal, are veritable case studies for Gantos’ point about the ability of a good story to demonstrate to a child what it means to understand and imaginatively enter into another person's feelings. And, when I returned home, I read the last two titles, just released, to my two young daughters, discovering that all titles deliver. And then some. Well-paced and engaging, they bring to children’s literature an unforgettable new protagonist.

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“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.” This is how most chapters begin, the introductory information making it so that you could pick up any story at any point, though they’re all interconnected, and follow. Anna’s life is very different from that of the typical American suburban family: She lives inside a big compound with her Canadian mother and African father; her grandmother and grandfather; her aunties and uncles; lots of cousins; and her twin baby brothers, Double and Trouble. While most Americans merely appreciate on a theoretical level the notion of a village raising a child, Anna’s family lives it: “It is not good to be alone,” she hears her family whispering to her mother on one particularly stressful day in Book 1. “We have to help each other. A husband and three children is too much for one woman alone.”

Though her life in Africa is culturally different (and children will learn about daily, suburban African home life), what makes these books work is the universality of Anna’s inner world, one full of exclamation marks and joy. (“Anna Hibiscus started to sing. First her heart, and then her mouth joined in” are my two favorite lines.) She lives with a loving (sometimes frustrating) family; she longs for adventure (to see snow in Canada, where her maternal grandmother lives); she feels pride when she conquers her fears (Granny Canada’s dog with the pointy teeth in Book 4, not to mention singing in front of her entire school and a visiting president in Book 2); and, by paying attention to the world around her and with a bit of nudging from her family, she learns about social justice (sharing her allotted amount of water with the poor, parched girls on the street during the time of the harmattan winds in Book 3).

Books 1 and 2, released in 2010, escaped my attention then. With last month’s release of Books 3 and 4, I’ve finally found them. And I highly recommend them. Like Anna, both my heart and my mouth join in. These are funny, delightfully child-centered stories. I hope we are treated to more of Anna’s adventures.  

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.