Tuesday 18 April 2017

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Anna Hibiscus is an engaging chapter book for readers aged 6 and upwards, and charts the adventures of the eponymous heroine in her colourful African life. At a time when there is a welcome drive toward diversity in children’s fiction, this is a warm and inviting story for early readers. 

Anna lives with her boisterous, extended family in an ‘old white house’ near an unspecified African city. Her father is African, her mother Canadian, and she has young twin brothers Double and Trouble, together with her grandparents, many aunties and uncles and 'big' and 'little' cousins. The sense of community is strong, and the reader is given a view of a new way of living. Character names are inventive — Chocolate, Auntie Comfort, Uncle Bizi Sunday, Wonderful to name a few — and the vibrant settings, rituals of life, dress codes, manners and expectations are sprinkled throughout the story to give a strong visceral sense of everyday African life. 

In fact, the theme of comparing worlds runs through the whole book. It is not only the reader who learns about another culture: Anna Hibiscus and her family explore these differences, too. Anna’s Canadian mother offers another perspective on everyday choices — should they spend a holiday as an immediate family unit, or with the whole extended family? Is peace and quiet better than noisy hustle and bustle? Similarly, Anna’s Auntie Comfort now lives in America and returns home to visit. We see how she feels about her African heritage, and how her family at home responds to her new life. Likewise, traditional life rubs alongside modern technology and developments. Anna, too, has a lively mind, and she is curious and tests her boundaries, both within the world she knows and by looking to countries beyond.

The illustrator, Lauren Tobia, adds much to the storytelling by giving visual clarification to young readers with her friendly, personable drawings.

This book is divided into four chapters and each tells a self-contained story. The style is simple and evocative. For instance, when Anna's father is faced with a problem, he goes swimming: '[his head] was a black ball in the waves. A black ball getting smaller and smaller. Just before it disappeared, it began to grow big again. Anna's father swum back with an idea.'  Every chapter starts with a similar refrain, inviting us to sink into ‘amazing Africa’, and ends with Anna Hibiscus (and, vicariously, the reader) learning a life lesson. We realise the value of family, of remembering where you come from while also adapting to change, the importance of seeing things from someone else’s perspective, and how great things happen when you use your initiative to follow a dream.   

Most importantly, although the stories describe unfamiliar cultures and places, there is much that a young reader will find to identify with in Anna’s curiosity and liveliness. The tone of the stories is good-natured and speckled with humour. I was left with the impression that there is more that unites those of different cultures than divides them, that the whole world itself is a colourful community to enjoy.



Penny Dolan said...

Sounds a beautiful story and a welcome book!

Chitra Soundar said...

Atinuke is one of my role models - for both storytelling and writing. I love Anna Hibiscus and probably read all the books in the series. We need more children to be reading these books

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