“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.” Get used to those words. It won’t be the last time you hear them. Anna Hibiscus is a little girl who lives in a beautiful white compound surrounded by her extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents all live together in a single home. Anna’s mother is originally from Canada, but she fits right in with everyone and the books Anna Hibiscus and Hooray for Anna Hibiscus follow Anna’s small adventures with her family. One minute she’s obsessed with the idea of snow, and the next she’s singing a song for a president of another country. Sometimes she has to watch her twin baby brothers Double and Trouble, and sometimes she’s watching the family goat butt heads with the family’s new generator. Whatever the case, Anna’s a sweet, thoroughly likable character and readers will find themselves longing for a life where there are always cousins to play with, and sweet mango trees in the backyard to climb for fun.
She has a way with words, that Atinuke. It will surprise no one reading these stories that she is a professional storyteller. For example, any kid who has ever had a younger sibling that was teething will instantly understand why Atinuke uses capital letters to describe the newly awakened Double and Trouble with the sentence, “They were Awake and Angry.” The tone of the books is always dead on. Though Anna learns a couple lessons in the course of these tales, you never feel as if the books are preachy or didactic. For example, when Anna refuses to get her hair done any more, all her grandmother has to say is “Leave her. She will learn,” and you know that grandma speaks the exact truth.
Atinuke’s other great strength is that she manages to balance the contemporary and the traditional with ease. I’m sure we may have an early chapter book or two set in Africa (though none immediately come to mind) but I CERTAINLY can’t think of any that take place in a modern setting. The only book that comes to mind was City Boy by Jan Michael, and that certainly was a title for older readers. In the Anna Hibiscus books, though, uncles are calling one another on cell phones and Anna’s texting her aunt across the sea. At the same time, the story “Auntie Comfort” defines the traditions of the family that are still in place. Says the book, “Anna’s mother and father and aunties and uncles drive to work in their cars. They send text messages and e-mails around the world, and call from the market on their mobile phones to see what shopping needs doing. But the clothes they wear are made from colorful African cloth, waxed and dyed and printed. The languages they speak are African as well as English.” So the duality of old and new are shown in a clever little tale. One that I suspect won’t age all that readily.
It’s interesting to me that the very first story in Anna Hibiscus is a tale of how Anna and her mom, dad, and brothers try to take a vacation without the extended relatives, only to realize that they need them more than they thought. At first I was puzzled as to why you’d just thrust the reader into the family situation so abruptly. Then I realized that Atinuke uses this story to introduce to kids the notion of having lots of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents around at all times. It’s like the characters are being introduced on a stage to our applause. And once you understand the living situation (everyone lives in one big house) the rest of the book will make that much more sense. The story also reminded me more than a little of that classic folktale It Could Always Be Worse, which is fun.
Two of the stories in the books are rather similar to one another, but I appreciated their presence. Part of what makes the Anna Hibiscus tales so remarkable is that Anna learns continually about differences in class. So in the first book, the story “Anna Hibiscus sells oranges” tells the tale of Anna envying the girls outside her compound who must sell fruit to earn a living, only to learn what it really means to have to be a kid and work for a living. In the second book, “The other side of the city” shows Anna the poorer neighborhoods of her town. These are very careful little stories, but they really reinforce the message of being grateful for what you already have. That’s not the only topic Atinuke isn’t afraid to broach in an early chapter book, of course. I’ve almost never seen a book that talks about the amount of work that goes into styling African hair that is “thicker and shinier and curlier than any other hair in the whole world.” The tale of Anna’s refusal to engage in the traditional Saturday braiding and weaving of her hair and the horrific results of that choice is like no story I’ve ever read anywhere before.
Now right from the start folks might worry that the men in this book all seem to go to work while the women stay home and remain traditional keepers of the home. That is not really the case, though. One of the first stories in the book is about Auntie Comfort who lives and has a job in America and whom Grandfather worries may have forgotten her African roots (no reason to fear). In the course of that tale we learn that everyone in the home has a job. And in the second book we hear a lot about the various jobs the aunts hold in the family. It seems that only Anna’s grandfather and grandmother are always home without jobs. Not a problem as I see it.