Our Story Starts In Africa

Our Story Starts in Africa
Patrice Lawrence, illustrated by Jeanetta Gonzales
Magic Cat

Paloma is visiting Trinidad, staying with Tante Janet and is eager to play with her cousins whom she’s not met before. They however don’t want to play with her; “How can you be family?” they say in response to her different way of speaking. Paloma’s sadness at her cousins’ comments is palpable in Jeanetta Gonzales richly hued illustrations, but Tante Janet is on hand to comfort her and tell her a secret.

Little by little she tells Paloma a story, one that starts in Africa. She explains how the comb the child holds is like combs found by scientists investigating the banks of the River Nile in northeastern Africa, used by people similar to the two of them, who lived thousands of years back, The conversation moves to warrior queens of yore, in particular one who fought the Romans two thousand years ago. I love how present and past come together by the visual juxtaposing of Paloma and her aunt, the comb and the historic ruler they are talking of.

This device continues to be used as their discussion turns to story telling and how African people preserved their stories on parchment, carved in stone, painted in caves and on jars, woven into kente cloth and through the beating of talking drums, not forgetting most importantly the passing on of stories orally from generation to generation. “Just like we’re doing now, Tante!” says Paloma.

Prompted by Paloma’s next question about writing books, the narrative turns to the role of libraries past and present, by which time the two decide to have a break for some refreshing ginger beer specially made by Tante Janet. This necessitates picking some limes from the yard, which is full of trees that Paloma hasn’t ever seen before. As the picking proceeds the two discuss some of Africa’s treasures; fruits, spices, precious wood and frankincense resin used in perfume making. Children will be horrified to read of jealous rulers from other lands, stealing diamonds, gold and most precious of all, African people.

Then with the limes collected, the subject of enslavement comes up :“That’s how we came to Trinidad,” Tante Janet says, leading on to colonisation,

and eventually through the wretched times of colonisation and enslavement, to the emergence of the fifty African countries comprising a thriving, present-day community of many places, faces and achievements.

That is where this superbly illustrated, engagingly and sensitively written book differs from many others about the African continent wherein the focus tends to be on (non contentious) topics like dance, music and traditional costume. How refreshing and exciting is Patrice’s approach for any adult who wants to present Black history to today’s youngsters, including this reviewer who feels increasingly ashamed of British policies and actions both past and present.

(In the final spread there’s more information about the topics discussed during the story.)

Just Like Grandpa Jazz

Just Like Grandpa Jazz
Tarah L. Gear and Mirna Imamovic
Owlet Press

Frank, the boy narrator, and his Grandpa Jazz – (Jasodhra as we later learn) are lovers of stories – reading them and telling them, though it’s Grandpa Jazz who is storyteller extraordinaire whether his tales are made up or not.

Now Grandpa is going to visit Mauritius, the island of his birth and youth, and he asks Frank to help him pack his suitcase. As they do so, Frank discovers a small holey rock in the case and that results in a story from Grandpa about how he fell into a volcano crater as a boy.

A stethoscope in a pocket of the case leads to a tale about a skull, and a bar of soap that’s going into the suitcase reminds Grandpa that his great grandmother used to wash the family’s clothes with soap in a river.

With the packing almost finished Frank spies a shirt with a badge with the word Jazz on it. Grandpa relates the story of how Her Majesty the Queen invited him to work for the NHS in the UK and how on the ship to England, people with white skin were separated from those with a different skin colour. This saddens Frank when he realises that had they both been travelling, due to racist attitudes they would have been kept apart – two people with so much in common whom the world viewed as being different.

Finally, with the packing completed, it’s off to the airport; but there’s still time for one more of Grandpa’s tales on the way. When they arrive at the airport, there’s a wonderful surprise in store for Frank …

With a lovely final twist, debut author Tarah L Gear’s wonderfully warm tale, vibrantly illustrated with gentle humour, by Mirna Imamović, (debuting as picture book illustrator) demonstrates and celebrates the intergenerational love between two terrific characters, Grandpa Jazz and Frank. It also shows the significant role passing down stories between generations can play in keeping alive that important sense of family history and heritage. It also reflects the racist attitudes at the time of Windrush, some of which sadly remain today. However, the book includes backmatter about heritage and elements of anti-racism that would be helpful in classroom and home discussions around these topics. An important book to share and talk about with children in the home or a school setting.

The Katha Chest

The Katha Chest
Radhiah Chowdhury and Lavanya Naidu
Allen & Unwin Children’s Books

Despite all that has happened since 2018, the UK retains its rich cultural tapestry, one that we all should celebrate.

I have never before seen a picture book that celebrates Bangladeshi culture so I was thrilled to be sent this one by an author and illustrator who draw on their own Indian Hindu and Bangladeshi Muslim heritage respectively.

Together they have crafted a fascinating story of young Asiya’s visits to her Nanu’s house which is full of treasures, Asiya’s favourite being the large katha chest containing quilts Nanu has made over the years from old saris. The little girl loves to immerse herself among these soft warm quilts and imagine the stories they hold just waiting to be whispered; stories both sad and happy, told to her by family members.

To begin with she shows readers a purple and blue quilt and we learn of Bora Khala’s medal from the war represented by the circular patterns on the fabrics. These help recall a sad time when he had to leave his wife alone with the children, to return after many years.

Then follows the first of Lavanya Naidu’s beautiful wordless double spreads of framed illustrations showing that time of the family’s life.

This and the five other four panel strips are in the style of Pattachitra – Bengali folk art cloth paintings, with simple colours, bold lines and intricate details, each one conveying a story within the main narrative. So it is that through these heirloom quilts, family history – the story of each aunt, mother and grandmother that wore the fabric – is passed on from generation to generation.

Each of the quilts holds a special memory and they’re also taken out when Asiya’s mother and aunts come together for sessions of tea drinking, story telling and reminiscing.

Both author and illustrator’s presentations of family history are imbued with so much tenderness and love that this a book for everyone regardless of their ethnic background.