Africana Book Awards: There's More To Africa Than Animals

The Africana Book Awards are supposed to encourage the publication of accurate, balanced children's literature about Africa. Guest host Celeste Headleee speaks to award winners Karen Leggett Abouraya and Ifeoma Onyefulu.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Now to an award dedicated to giving young American readers an accurate and balanced account of Africa. Parents and teachers looking for books that go beyond the portrayal of lions and giraffes or safaris might want to check out the winners of this year's Children's Africana Book Awards. The prize, which was awarded on Saturday night, was set up to showcase the best children's books about Africa that are published in the U.S.

And we're joined now by two authors who've been awarded for their books. Karen Leggett Abouraya's book "Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books" was a winner this year. And also with us is Ifeoma Onyefulu. She won awards in 2005 and in 2008. Welcome to both of you.

IFEOMA ONYEFULU: Thank you.

KAREN LEGGETT ABOURAYA: Thank you, delighted to be here.

HEADLEE: I wanted to talk first about the idea of the award in and of itself because they write in there that, as I mentioned earlier, that they're trying to encourage people to write accurate and balanced books about Africa, which of course leads us to assume that many of the books that are being published are neither accurate nor balanced. Let me begin with you, Karen. What do you think - what's been the problem with some children's lit so far?

ABOURAYA: I think part of the problem comes - and I was told this when I was first made aware that I had won, that our book, "Hands Around the Library," had won the award - the winners have to emphasize the fact that Africa is not a country.

HEADLEE: You're kidding me.

ABOURAYA: Africa is a continent. And a lot of Americans have a - you know, are you from Africa? Well, that's like saying are you from North America. And I think a lot of the winning books specify stories about African countries and make them individual people in individual African countries. And I think that's a real important distinction.

HEADLEE: And what do you think, Ifeoma, is there a lot of inaccuracies that are published about Africa that either support stereotypes or don't debunk them?

ONYEFULU: Yes, I think so. For instance, there are still some books that are about safaris, about lions and giraffes. And to be honest, you know, growing up in Africa, growing up in Nigeria, to be specific, I don't remember any time I saw a lion except in the zoo. So you still have those things. And also the fact that I've been accused of, you know, making everything very neat. You know, photographing mainly - because I do. I luster my books with photographs.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

ONYEFULU: And photographing my own - members of my own family because they're all were off or whatever.

HEADLEE: Wait, let me understand. People are accusing you of prettying it up?

ONYEFULU: Yes, exactly. That's the word, yeah.

HEADLEE: But your photos are actually taken just - one of them is taken at a wedding, another is...

ONYEFULU: Exactly. Exactly. So yes, I have been...

HEADLEE: They think you staged them to make them look nicer.

ONYEFULU: Yes. Yes. So that's what I've been accused of, you know, because I suppose they were looking for the hunger, the poverty and whatnot. You know, I don't know.

HEADLEE: Well, let me go back to you, Karen, then. There's also a problem, of course, with the number of books that even feature either Africa or even African-Americans. I think it's something like just over 3 percent of all children's book published in the U.S. last year were about African-Americans at all.

ABOURAYA: That's true and it's a growing problem. It's been a problem for a long time, minority representation in children's book. And there are some publishers who are trying to do a lot to change that. Part of it is to have stories about African-Americans, and also to feature African-Americans in regular stores doing regular things...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

ABOURAYA: ...That may not have anything to do with their being African-Americans. And when it comes to stories of African countries, they need to be, as Ifeoma said, more positive stories. I was speaking at a school in Silver Spring, and a father from Uganda stood up after me...

HEADLEE: Silver Spring, Maryland.

ABOURAYA: Silver Spring, Maryland, yes. And a father from Uganda stood up afterward and said thank you for a positive story about an African country. And the story that we tell in "Hands Around the Library" is a positive, inspirational story of people in Egypt. And too many of the stories, just as Ifeoma said, they're about poverty and hunger and violence and those stories need to be told, but children also need to know that there are families, their children are going to school, they are learning, and in many cases, there are similar things that they like to do to American children.

HEADLEE: Ifeoma, have you met American kids who've read your book? What kind of response do you get?

ONYEFULU: Yes, I have. Because I've been to I think about, in Boston, six schools...

HEADLEE: Wow.

ONYEFULU: ...In Washington, D.C., one school here. Yes, they have been very, very positive. They have been very excited to see my books. And I think they're really - you know, there's a huge hunger for books that show positive images of African children. And - but, although, having said that, there was a boy that was saying to me, he asked an innocent question - there's nothing wrong with that - he just said, are there cities in Africa?

HEADLEE: Are there cities in Africa?

ONYEFULU: Yes. Are there cars? Do they have cars in Africa? And so I opened one of my books set in Ethiopia about a boy from a middle-class family. I purposely went and stayed with a middle-class family just to show that, you know, so that it helps. So I opened it, and I showed the cars and the middle-class family, you know, so that he will have an idea of what it is like.

HEADLEE: And you said, of course there are cities and of course there are cars? Or you just showed him your book?

ONYEFULU: I did. I said, there are cities, and for example, can you see this pictures? Because, you know, like I said, I illustrate my books with photographs. So I was able to point and show it to him.

HEADLEE: How old was he about?

ONYEFULU: He was in second grade.

HEADLEE: Oh, so he was only like seven years?

ONYEFULU: Yes. Yes.

HEADLEE: Maybe eight years old?

ONYEFULU: That's right, yes.

HEADLEE: But still, at the same time, Karen, this kind of - her story illustrates exactly what we're talking about here that American children, especially - whether they have roots in Africa or don't - don't know nothing about the continent of Africa.

ABOURAYA: That's right. When I ask children what they know about Egypt, invariably, it's pyramids and mummies. And the delight in this story - this is a true story that came from the 2011...

HEADLEE: Of preserving the books.

ABOURAYA: ...Revolution, and when they held hands around the library in Alexandrina to protect the library. It's a beautiful, gorgeous, modern library, so that in itself is a bit of information that's new for children. But we had a Skype session in Alexandria, Virginia between children in Alexandrina, Egypt and Alexandria, Virginia, and these were fourth graders. And one of the American boys said, what is your favorite food? And there's a little girl on the screen in Alexandrina, Egypt saying hamburgers and pizza.

And that was revealing. All the American kids just went whoa, you know. And it turned out they liked the same singers, the liked the same - they even liked the same professional wrestlers, you know. I mean, it was just sort of amazing how many things they had in common. And that was - so the book becomes an opportunity to introduce American children to all of these things that they never knew about an African country, when all they knew, really, was camels and pyramids and mummies, in the case of Egypt. Ifeoma is nodding. She's found exactly the same thing. You have an opportunity with these kinds of books to really expand on what children know.

HEADLEE: And so, Ifeoma, is the knowledge of America better in Africa? Do Nigerian kids also have stereotypes about Americans and American kids?

ONYEFULU: Yes, I'm afraid so. They do. They have the fast food.

HEADLEE: That we eat fast food all the time.

ONYEFULU: And everybody wears jeans, you know, and...

HEADLEE: Those are both kind of true.

ONYEFULU: Yeah. And the rap music, all of that, yes. But, you know, having said that, but I think they do know more about American life compared to the other way around. You know, many of the American children don't know enough about African children. And I think that's why it's very good to have these sort of books to show that children live normal lives and have - for instance, like the book I was telling you about, "Omer's Favourite Place," set in Ethiopia.

It was this middle-class child looking for a quiet place to play because his sisters kept interrupting his play. So it's a normal feeling for children, especially if you have older sisters, you want, you know, a little piece of - an area where you can just quietly sit down and play. So I tried to make it as normal as, you know, everybody will be able to, you know, understand, you know, the readers.

HEADLEE: And you guys are both award winners, and, certainly, this award is encouraging people like yourselves to write these kind of books. I want to thank you both so much. We spoke Karen Leggett Abouraya and Ifeoma Onyefulu. They both won Children's Africana Book Awards, and they were kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much to both of you.

ONYEFULU: Thank you.

ABOURAYA: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Tune in tomorrow for more talk.

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