When her parents split, Blessing is moved from the comforts of a modern apartment complex to a poor rural village in the Niger Delta. The American teens we serve are certainly familiar with changes of circumstance – often due to parents who divorce, lose jobs or relocate. Blessing experiences all of those changes in one blow.
What I like about Tiny Sunbirds is that it is set in the present, and that it is easy to be hooked by Blessing’s voice and point of view, especially her disorientation. She is used to a modern way of life, much like ours, when she is suddenly uprooted. One day she cannot imagine life without running water, without electricity and school and plenty to eat. The next day she is learning to cook over a fire, carry clean water home from the village, and share a room and a bed with her mother and brother.
Nigerian writers of note include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose novels Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf, 2006) and Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin, 2003) are probably in most of our libraries. Both are coming of age stories. And of course Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart (Holt, 1958) is frequently assigned in high schools around the country.
Watson is not African, she is British. Yet she brings a clear understanding of the issues of present-day Nigeria to her fiction, without letting them overwhelm the story. Add this to your list of go-to global fiction.
Adult/High School–Blessing is 12 when her mother takes her and her 14-year-old brother, Ezekiel, away from their cheating father and their comfortable apartment in Lagos. They move in with Mama’s parents, Alhaji and Grandma, who live in a rural compound with no running water or electricity. Blessing is appalled by their change in circumstance, but at least Mama insists that they continue to attend school. Ezekiel is determined to be a doctor. The countryside is in political upheaval thanks to the foreign oil companies and the government-sponsored “Kill and Go” squads that regularly destroy villages and kidnap oil executives for ransom. The compound scrapes by on Grandma’s earnings as a midwife, Mama’s wages working in an oil-company club and, later, gifts from her white boyfriend, Dan. When Alhaji uses their fees for yet another unlikely money-making scheme, Ezekiel and Blessing stop going to school. Ezekiel loses hope and turns to other disaffected youth, while Blessing finds her calling as Grandma’s apprentice birth attendant. Blessing’s involving story brings home issues of cutting (female circumcision), polygamy, environmental degradation and its effects on the health of the poor, the causes of poverty in rural Nigeria, and the contrast between traditional and new ways of life. Only after surviving a terrible tragedy does Blessing learn that her childish perceptions of family were an illusion. She finds a better life, connected to her country, her extended family, and her own destiny. Teens will especially appreciate the struggles and joys of the sibling relationship, and the lyrical, yet clear, writing style.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City