When I discovered the amazing, remarkable, one-of-a-kind, never before seen Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke last year I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It just didn’t seem possible. A contemporary early chapter book set on the continent of Africa? To understand how rare this was visit your local library sometime. Ask for fiction about Africa that takes place today for early readers. Specify that you’d rather not take out a work of older fiction that’s deadly serious, but rather something light and fun. And while you’re at it, why don’t you ask for the moon as well since you’re just as likely to get that as what I’ve just described unless it’s Anna Hibiscus (in America anyway). Now Anna is joined by yet another Atinuke character. No. 1 lives in a rural village with his family and friends and his stories, like those of Anna Hibiscus, linger in your brain long after you’ve read them.
Meet No. 1. He’s what you might call a car spotter. If there’s a car driving past his village, you can be sure he’ll not only spot it but identify it and long before anyone else. Life in No. 1′s village isn’t easy, of course. If a cart breaks down then everyone’s got to figure out how to get the produce to the market (it’s No. 1 who comes up with a brilliant solution). If a woman wants to get lipstick at the market she sometimes will have to send a boy (No. 1 ends up doing the right thing entirely by accident then too). If people need chores done they have to rely on the kids (a problem when No. 1 wants to only help the auntie who makes the best food). And if someone gets seriously sick… well, sometimes it’s not always No. 1 who comes up with the solutions to problems. But he’s always around to help out.
I adore Atinuke’s ear for language. This book just begs to be read aloud as you go through it. Pitch perfect bedtime reading fare, that’s what you have here. You get such magnificent lines out of it too. For example, there’s the section where No. 1 aids a single particular mama in the hopes of getting some of her delicious akara. At one point the author just writes, “As I was an able-bodied boy in the vicinity of a shouting mama I started to run around as well.” Something about the construction of that sentence just pleases me to no end. Later No. 1 explains to Coca-Cola that he can’t risk helping him out anymore because he might end up with a name like 7Up. Coca-Cola, visibly upset, points out that his own nickname is from a soft drink. I love No. 1′s method of comforting his friend. “That… is because Coca-Cola is the number one soft drink. Some people prefer Fanta. It is true. And some people prefer Sprite. Some people don’t touch Coca-Cola. But Coca-Cola is still number one.” As pep talks go, I’ve never heard one entirely based on pop. I love that.
Anna Hisbiscus was great, taking place as it did in a middle class compound in the middle of a big city. One of the joys of the books, in fact, is that the author is not afraid to show that Anna is a relatively privileged girl who has to come to terms with the fact that just outside the walls of her home live children with significantly less. No. 1, in contrast, lives a very poor life in a village. It is exceedingly difficult to write about poor characters without being either horribly depressing or too happy-go-lucky for your own good. Atinuke strikes precisely the right balance here. First off, you have a child character who doesn’t go to school, so that’s amazing right then and there. Additionally, three of the four stories acknowledge the difficulty of No. 1′s life but these problems appear as challenges to overcome. Then the author has the guts to write a story where the hero’s can-do spirit faces the simple facts of his situation. His grandmother is sick and there’s apparently nothing anyone can do since they haven’t the money to pay a doctor. It’s a gutsy move on Atinuke’s part to include a tale this serious, happy ending or no. When people read early chapter fiction they expect giggles and good times entirely in the Horrid Henry vein. Meaning and reality are unexpected and, as it happens, entirely welcome.
One of the criticisms lobbed at Anna Hibiscus was the fact that Atinuke mentions Africa but not the country in which the story takes place. Here in America we have a bit of a time convincing kids (and some adults) that Africa is a continent, not a country. It was pointed out to me that Atinuke is a storyteller and her mentions of Africa (glorious Africa) were made very much in the storytelling tradition. Be that as it may be, The No. 1 Car Spotter begins in a slightly different fashion. “On the continent of Africa, you will find my country.” Still no mention of what that country is, but it appeases those adult readers worried that Atinuke’s books reinforce unfortunate assumptions. Besides, the fact that the characters eat akara (a Nigerian fried bean cake) is sort of a give away right there. One objection that was lobbed at “No. 1″ worth mentioning was the fact that no one in the boy’s village seems to have their own name. No. 1 says right off the bat that his real name is Oluwalase Babatunde Benson but that’s about the only real name we see. Everyone is Coca-Cola, Nike, Uncle Go-Easy, Auntie Fine-Fine, etc. Traditional names are few and far between. While this is true to a certain extent (though the small children Beke, Bisi, and Bola are mentioned) I wasn’t particularly perturbed by it. Nicknames are clearly a part of this village’s culture and while it would be nice to see a couple real names thrown in there once in a while, I didn’t feel that the book lacked any for the loss.
Warwick Johnson Cadwell is the illustrator for this book, and his contributions prove to be just as important as those of Atinuke herself. A Brit, his style is hard to pin down. All I can say is that his pen and inks in this book have a life of their own. There’s energy and movement to this man’s style. More than that, the art is better than the usual fare we see. Cadwell seems to have a fondness for a kind of Picasso-esque style where you see the two eyes of a person’s face at once, even though their cheek might be facing you. You also sometimes get the feeling that he’s reluctant to lift his pen from the page. It’s enough to make me suspect that the Etch-a-Sketch inadvertently influenced many a budding artist back in the day since the people in this book often look as though they’ve been instructed from a single sinuous line.
A village where most of the men go off to work in the city and the women are left home to tend to the crops is a village I can believe in. Kids will believe in it too, but just as importantly they’ll want to know more about it. That’s the thing about Atinuke. It isn’t just that she writes about places and people that no one else does. It’s that she makes them interesting and fun. No. 1 is the kind of guy kids are going to want to know more about. Good thing he has more adventures in the pipeline. A great, almost necessary book and one that you’ll be delighted to discover.
On shelves September 1st.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Misc: Get a sneak preview of the book here.
Videos: Watch Atinuke herself reciting from the book!