Toni Morrison for Kids

Celebrated writer Toni Morrison passed away one month ago today. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and myriad other honors. She is best known for her eleven novels, among them Beloved and The Bluest Eye. But with her passing, I discovered another genre of Morrison’s writing: children’s literature! Morrison wrote nine books of children’s fiction — together with her son Slade Morrison — and one book of children’s nonfiction. Over the last month, I read all of them in the company of my eight-year-old daughter. They’re wonderful. Treat yourself and your kids to these gems. Warning: Spoilers for children’s picture books below!

ant or grasshopperIn four books, the Morrisons retell classic tales with a thoughtful twist. In Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper?, the two insects have a great summer hanging in the park, but when fall comes, the ant gets to work, preparing for winter, while the grasshopper keeps making his music. In the cold winter, the grasshopper comes knocking at the ant’s door, asking for help. Condescending ant gives a haughty speech but grasshopper stands up for himself: “How can you say I never worked a day? Art is work. It just looks like play.” The Morrisons offer no tidy resolution. They just pose the question — “Who’s got game?” — and walk away.

lion or mouseIn Who’s Got Game? The Lion or the Mouse?, the titular rodent pulls a thorn from the paw of the king of the jungle, but then starts making more and more demands in return, ultimately desiring to be king himself. The story ends with a remarkable role reversal, with a meditative lion achieving wisdom on a lonely hill.

poppy or snakeIn Who’s Got Game? Poppy or the Snake?, a grandfather tells his grandson about the time he got friendly with a snake until things turned bad. “Hey, man. I’m a snake. You knew that.” But the Morrisons gently twist this fable from Aesop to teach the importance of paying attention. The three Who’s Got Game? books are available as an audiobook, narrated beautifully by Toni Morrison herself.

tortoise or hareIn The Tortoise or the Hare, two social outcasts — a studious tortoise and an athletic hare — sign up for a race and show that you can set your own goal and win regardless.

the big boxIn The Big Box, three children love to make noise, get dirty, and — you know — act like children. With each child in turn, the adults in their lives intervene: “‘Oh Patty,’ they said, ‘you’re an awfully sweet girl with a lot of potential inside you. But you have to know how far to go so the grown-up world can abide you.” Each child defends herself: “If freedom is handled just your way then it’s not my freedom or free.” But the adults put each child in a “big brown box,” filled with all kinds of wondrous things. Not their freedom, though. The candy-coated oppression drips from the pages of this book, but wait and see what happens when you put kids in a box.

peeny butter fudgePeeny Butter Fudge. What happens when grandma is in charge? In this delightful, rhyming story, mom goes to work and leaves her three children in grandma’s care with a strict schedule of activities. Grandma deviates from the schedule but knows that a sweet, nostalgic treat at the end of the day can soothe the most harried mom.

please louisePlease, Louise. Louise inhabits a frightening world: old houses, dark clouds, barking dogs. Until she gets to the library, that is. “Here is shelter from any storm. In this place you are never alone.” A sweet homage to libraries.

little cloudLittle Cloud and Lady Wind. What do clouds do? They “terrify the earth with storm and thunder”! All but one cloud, that is. Little Cloud loves the earth and wants more from her life. One night, Lady Wind takes Little Cloud on a journey to discover all that a cloud can really be: “I am me and all the things I dreamed of.”

the book of mean peopleThe Book of Mean People. Through the eyes of children (child rabbits, in this case), the Morrisons present all the people that appear mean to children in this picture book with just a handful of words per page. “My mother is mean. She says I don’t listen. She says, ‘DO YOU HEAR ME?’ I can’t hear her when she is screaming.” Or my favorite line: “My baby-sitter is mean. She says, ‘Hurry up. You are wasting time!’ How can I waste time if I use it?” Remember, “Big people are little when they are mean. But little people are not big when they are mean.” Truth.

As with most storybooks, these aren’t just about the words. The Morrisons have collaborated with a range of talented illustrators to bring these stories to life.

remember the journeyIn the one children’s book that Toni Morrison authored without her son, Remember: The Journey to School Integration, she combines photos from the battle for school integration in the 1950s with captions that imagine what the children in the photos are thinking. The pictures are powerful — some hopeful, some frustrating, some enraging — and Morrison’s captions bring them to life.

My favorites were The Big Box and The Ant or the Grasshopper? I encourage you to discover your own, with or without children.
Advertisements

Read African Writers: The Shadow of Things to Come, by Kossi Efoui

shadow of things to cometogoTowards the beginning of his novel, Kossi Efoui tells a joke: “It’s the story of three men together in the prison cell. The first says, ‘I got twenty years for telling a joke.’ The second says, ‘I got fifteen for laughing.’ The third says, ‘I got ten years for doing nothing.’ ‘You’re lying,’ say the other two, ‘doing nothing–that’s only a five-year stretch.'” In an unnamed African country — Efoui was born and raised in Togo — the narrator of The Shadow of Things to Come (translated from French by Chris Turner), a boy’s father is taken away to a re-education camp from reasons unknown, and his mother is whisked away to a mental hospital. Mama Maize — a woman who cares for lost children — provides shelter and Axis Kemal — a bookseller — provide guidance to our narrator, until he receives the call to the “Frontier Challenge,” likely a border war. But we’re never certain, for Efoui’s narrative is filled with more doublespeak than George Orwell’s 1984. Efoui mimics the way that the government maintains uncertainty with euphemisms upon euphemisms. Nothing is clear until the government comes banging on your door, that is. “Don’t wait for them to capture you.” The Shadow of Things to Come is ominous, circular, and effective.

Here is what a couple of others had to say about the book:
  • Matt Hartman, Bookslut: “This novel is a powerful reflection on the world we live in, a vision that goes beyond truisms about tyranny and control and freedom and returns our gaze to the humans at the center of it all.”
  • Gautam Bhatia, The Wire: “The bleak, almost nightmarish world conjured up in The Shadow of Things to Come, where everything but words have “so little existence”, is a disturbingly familiar one.”
You can read an excerpt here. This is book #36 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Gratitude in Low Voices, by Dawit Gebremichael Habte

gratitude in low voiceseritreaDawit Gebremichael Habte grew up in rural Eritrea, then Asmara (Eritrea’s capital). As a teenager he traveled through Ethiopia and entered Kenya as a refugee from the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. Ultimately he migrated to the United States, studied at Johns Hopkins University, and went to work for Michael Bloomberg’s company. But he didn’t do it alone! Early in his memoir, Habte quotes an Eritrean proverb: “To those who have done you favors, either return the favor or tell others about their good deeds.” Habte’s memoir — Gratitude in Low Voices — is focused on gratitude to all those who helped him on his path. Along the way, he shares his experience of both rural and urban life in Eritrea, a short history of Eritrea and of the long-term conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea: “Out of the fifty-three former European colonies in Africa, Eritrea was the only country to be denied independence after its European masters departed.” His escape to Kenya is harrowing, and when he arrives in the U.S. — like many other refugees — the challenges are far from over. But I enjoyed Habte’s story. He gives brief bios of many of the people who helped him along the way as a way of honoring, which interrupts his narrative, but I respect his objective.

I listened to the audiobook, capably narrated by Benjamin Onyango. When he talked about how his “neighbor Alembrhan Berhe had an amazing way of explaining basic arithmetic and mathematical word problems using practical examples. She would use dates, ages, household items, and prices of basic goods to explain addition- and subtraction-related challenges and word problems,” I remember work from another country — by Banerjee and others — showing that children working in markets in India were able to solve arithmetic problems, but only when those problems were framed as market transactions.”

Here is what a few other people thought of the book (including Eritrea’s Ministry of Information!):
  • Emeka Aniagolu, TesfaNews: “An excellent autobiographical work which will prove a powerful voice…for not only his family’s experience, but for his country, Eritrea.”
  • Robin Edmunds, Foreword Reviews: “This book is a reaffirmation of the good that people can do and how one young man succeeded despite the odds against him.”
  • Ann Morgan: A Year of Reading the World: “Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.”
  • Mary Okeke, Mary Okeke Reviews: “Gratitude in Low Voices is an interesting and an uplifting narrative, simple and comprehensible, it is just Dawit telling his story.”
  • Sofia Tesfamariam, Eritrea Ministry of Information: “Dawit Ghebremichael Habte has managed to organize the memories of his journey and present a story that finds rare authenticity and validation of not just his own life but also that of others who have crossed his path… Despite beginning with an Eritrean adage, what was missing in the book was more of them.”
  • Vivian Wagner, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction: “This is, at times, a rambling and disjointed narrative… This book is a story about storytelling, about the process of creating a narrative out of disorder, and about all the people that help shape that narrative along the way.”

This is book #35 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Three stories by Gervásio Kaiser

native dancesao tome and principeFinding a book to read from São Tomé and Príncipe wasn’t easy. When Ann Morgan did her challenge of reading a book from every country back in 2012, she couldn’t find any literature translated into English. In the end, she crowdsourced a translation of a novel in Portuguese, Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor (The House of the Shepherd). (Unfortunately, the translation isn’t publicly available.) I could read a book in Portuguese, but it takes me a while to read novels in Portuguese and since I’m trying to read a book from every country in one year, I’ll have to save my Portuguese reading for January. Luckily, the Soma Nami blog pointed me to short stories by Gervásio Kaiser. Kaiser was born and raised in São Tomé and Príncipe but has subsequently worked there, in the U.S., and in the Caribbean. Kaiser has three short stories that I could find.

Native Dance: An African Story” (also sold as “Dancing with Makengo”): This story opens with an arrest. Makengo is accused of attacking a woman with a knife, but claims to only have been defending the son of a woman he loves but who will pay him no mind. This was my favorite of Kaiser’s stories. He captures intercultural tensions as well as interpersonal ones, with just a touch of romance mixed in.

The Moor of Sankore (sometimes sold together with “The Stranger” as an ebook called Island Moors: Two African Short Stories): A student returns home to his own African country from Sankore University where he studies pre-Adamic studies (probably a reference to the ancient University of Sankoré). He is met with suspicion by a red-headed, blue-eyed interrogator. Once released, he and friends are engaged in a plot.

The Stranger: A dangerous stranger is in town, and he comes to face with one bold storekeeper and his dog.

I really enjoyed “Native Dance” and highly recommend it. (What’s more, in the US the ebook costs about $0.99 and will take you 10 minutes to read. You have almost nothing to lose!) I found the other two a little bit inscrutable.

Read African Writers: Echoes from the Oasis, by A.R. Tirant

Echoes from the OasisseychellesForbidden love! Murder for profit! Gorgeous landscapes! Shipwrecks! Passion! War! Woodworking! Nursing! Witchcraft! If this sounds like your cup of tea, then A.R. Tirant’s historical romance — Echoes from the Oasis — might be the book for you. Tirant lived in the Seychelles for the first 37 years of her life, before migrating to the UK. In her book, she draws a rich picture of her childhood home, the island of Mahé, with her story of a nature-loving nurse, Anna, who falls in love with a wealthy merchant’s son, Louis, on the eve of World War I.

Tirant’s deep love for the natural beauty of her home shines through. This is her first novel, and the prose isn’t elegant, but she gets the job done. Occasionally I wished for more context: When a white man is sentenced to death for the murder of a black man, the narrator notes that “it was not every day that a white man would hang for the murder of a black man on the island.” I wanted to understand more of those dynamics. And sometimes I wished for more character development: one character advocates for a return to slavery with little context, and Anna’s mother reacts violently to a choice made by her daughter towards the end of the book with little precedent.

But those points aside, the book ends on a cliffhanger and I’ll admit that Tirant left me longing to know how things turn out. (The next book in the series is not yet out.)

This is book #33 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Grub Hunter, by Amir Tag Elsir (translated by William Hutchins)

the grub huntersudanA retired agent of the secret police decides to write a novel. After all, “a poor Rwandan cobbler composed a novel about the interethnic civil war in his poor African country,” and “a reformed prostitute in Saigon also wrote two brilliant novels: one about her former life when she was nobody in a dark alley, and the other about her new life after she founded a small factory that makes mint candy. Now her novels have been translated into every language, and readers are dazzled by them.” So begins Sudanese born and raised writer Amir Tag Elsir’s delightful novel, The Grub Hunter (translated by William Hutchins), which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011. The narrator soon finds that writing a novel isn’t easy, but he starts by hanging out at a cafe with an accomplished novelist (called AT — almost all character names are abbreviated, likely a holdover from the narrators days writing secret police reports). “I was very close to the world of writing now.” (Maybe he’ll learn writing by osmosis, who knows?)

One member of AT’s inner circle publishes a romance novel, a genre the narrator dismisses for dubious reasons: “My novel certainly won’t be a love story… This type of story no longer impresses anyone, because love has now become a daily routine practised even by beggars and homeless people.” Then again, who can blame him, when the romance comes with prose like this? “Within your eyes, desire lies dormant; rouse it from its torpor. Awaken it, I entrust you … I want it awake and stupid; I love stupidity.”

AT does give the narrator some advice on writing rituals: “My writing rituals differ from one text to the next. I write some novels while elegantly attired and seated in the lobby of a swank hotel or the departure lounge of some airport. Some texts I compose naked in a closed room with the drapes drawn and not a breath of air. Some texts won’t come unless I wander the streets and alleyways, begging from passers-by. When I wrote my novel before last… I stole a wallet from the pocket of a livestock dealer…and spent an entire month in jail, where I finished the text… I’ll tell you about a novel I wrote in a public latrine reserved for conscripts while I was performing my military service. That’s one of my best.”

It’s all ridiculously fun. Beyond the narrator’s story, we encounter a story within the story, when the narrator reads one of AT’s novels about an amateur and yet already failed filmmaker in Moscow. And wait, there’s more! The narrator of the story within the story paraphrases a novel HE reads about a village girl in eighteenth century Russia, so we’re three layers down and it just gets better. “The novel was a page-turner from the get-go.” I agree!

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

This is book #32 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers — How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, by Sandra Uwiringiyimana (with Abigail Pesta)

How Dare the Sun RisedrcAt this point, there could be a whole genre of “memoirs by youth who fled war-torn African countries”: Earlier this year I read The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After — about Clemantine Wamariya’s flight from Rwanda at age five and subsequent time in a range of African countries before landing in the U.S. — and in years past I read Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

To add to the list, I’ve just read How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, by Sandra Uwiringiyimana (written with Abigail Pesta). Uwiringiyimana fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her family when she was just ten years old. They moved to a refugee camp in Burundi, where she witnessed her mother and sister shot. (That’s the opening scene of the book.) The book is vivid and compelling in both its recounting of the challenges of day-to-day life as a refugee for a young child (as well as the horrors of the massacre in the Burundian camp) and the subsequent challenges that Uwiringiyimana faced when her family moved to Rochester, New York, as part of a refugee resettlement program. Life isn’t easy for refugees, especially those who’ve undergone profound trauma. Uwiringiyimana’s gradual healing and growth into an activist who speaks on behalf of her people is inspiring. Along the way, she chats with the Obamas, Oprah Winfrey, and others.

This memoir — targeted to young adults but insightful to not-so-young adults as well — moved me. And while I was grateful to learn from Uwiringiyimana’s story, it also left me thinking about the kinds of refugees who end up writing books and those who don’t, and how I look forward to finding even more stories in times to come. This story was a privilege to hear, but I don’t want to get caught in the danger of a single story.

Here are a few passages that impressed me:
  • On education: “My parents deeply valued education. They had big dreams for their kids, and they knew it all started with school.”
  • On getting to school in DRC: “The kids at my school all lived within walking distance. That was the only way for any of us to get to school: on our feet.”
  • On racism in DRC: “At school, the Congolese kids were not always so supportive. They would tease me, mainly because my nose was thinner than theirs, making me look different. Sometimes they would say I wasn’t truly Congolese. Other times they would call me Rwandan. It was meant to be an insult, making me into a foreigner, but I didn’t know what it meant. ‘I’m not Rwandan,’ I would say. ‘I’ve never been to Rwanda. I was born here.’”
  • On twerking: “Where I come from, twerking is not sexualized the way it is in America. The boys sometimes do it better than the girls. Everyone does it. It’s wild and fun and freeing,”
  • On camping as a former refugee: “One day, the youth group invited me along for an overnight party that sounded weird to me—a camping trip. I had never heard of camping. I imagined we would go to the woods and hike and swim, then go to sleep in a bed in a house. When I heard that we would be sleeping on the ground for three days, outside, under a tent, I thought that was insane. People did this on purpose? It sounded like a refugee camp. Goodness, I thought. Are these people so bored, so privileged, that they want to sleep outside on the ground instead of in their comfy beds?”
  • On images of Africa on American TV: “The images of Africa on American TV were all the same: There were the ads for charity groups showing a white lady holding a starving black child, flies landing all over the kid. Indeed, Africans might be poor, but we know how to swat flies.”
  • On the upside of Facebook: “As more survivors of our massacre made their way to America, we began to connect with one another on Facebook, as we were all scattered across the country. And we decided to meet up once a year for a reunion, on the anniversary of the attack in August.

Here is what a few other critics had to say:
  • Elizabeth Bush, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Sandra’s account of her transition to America is fully as engrossing as her family’s escape from their war-torn homeland, and her memories of trying to navigate American culture as a twelve-year-old alien desperate to fit in will provoke consideration even with readers who look upon immigrant classmates and neighbors with indifference.”
  • Didier Gondola, Africa Access Review: “How Dare the Sun Rise is not without its flaws. Although her compelling story does elicit her readers’ sympathy for the plight of refugees, the author never really provides a context to help readers understand the history and events that transformed the Great Lakes Region into a cauldron of war. At times, the narrative verges on the trivial and the melodramatic.”
  • Zoe I, TeenReads.com: “HOW DARE THE SUN RISE is a deeply moving and powerful book about strength, resilience and the truth about the American Dream.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “This hard-hitting autobiography will have readers reeling as it shows one young woman’s challenging path to healing.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “With compassion and perspicacity, Uwiringiyimana shares the journey through which she became a courageous advocate for her tribe and refugees everywhere.”
  • School Library Journal: “The title is a critical piece of literature, contributing to the larger refugee narrative in a way that is complex and nuanced but still accessible for a YA audience.

This is book #31 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.