I have a bittersweet relationship with early reader chapter books. I say “sweet” because those chapter books are legion: my daughters can check out seven books in a series and savor them throughout the week, and I don’t have to pre-read every one.
But I also say “bitter” because many of the early reader series tend to be a bit flat: they incorporate interesting historical or geographical elements, but the characters remain pretty static and the stories tend toward the formulaic—I suppose they must if they’re to have fifty or more books per series. The more of these we borrow from the library, the more I find myself willing to settle for fewer books of better quality.
Anna Hibiscus is the first early chapter book I’ve found that strikes both the educational and the character-rich chords at once. Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa (“Amazing Africa!”) with her Canadian mother, her African father, her twin baby brothers, and all her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. She doesn’t travel through time or make a single pun on the word “mouse,” but Anna Hibiscus does long for snow, love her family, and learn a bit about how truly wealthy she is.
Atinuke paints an enchanting picture of urban life in Africa through the musical language of her characters and through sweet stories about Anna herself, while Lauren Tobia’s illustrations portray a family life that is rich and vibrant, even in black and white drawings.
I found myself actually wanting to read these books aloud to my daughters—rare praise for a genre that caters toward independent readers! There aren’t many books in this series, which gives me hope that the rest of them will be as well-written (and charmingly illustrated) as the first.
Atinuke, Lauren Tobia (2010)