It’s no secret that nonfiction in children’s literature is the buzzword of the day. Thanks to the rise of interest in the Core Curriculum State Standards, kids are currently being urged to read more and more nonfiction in all its many myriad forms. The results are mixed. On the one hand we’re seeing more attention paid to some fine pieces of nonfiction that might otherwise have sunk below the radar. By the same token, some truly terrible nonfiction is getting forced down the gullets of our children by well meaning adults who don’t know the difference between quality and schlock. Even more disturbing, publishers are starting to relabel works of fiction as “nonfiction” on the weakest of justifications. It takes guts for someone to start to write something as nonfiction, then stop, think about it, and proceed to change course entirely and label the work fiction after all. There’s a backbone of integrity to Monica Edinger’s Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad. Though it could easily have been labeled nonfiction, the author and publisher opted instead to give themselves a bit of leverage. 95% of what you’ll read here is true. More to the point, it’s fascinating. A little known story filled with original research that’s a great read from start to finish.
Born in Mendeland, West Africa, Magulu lived amongst family and greenery until the famine struck. Starving, her father pawned his daughter in exchange for food in the hopes of repaying his debt after a year. Yet before the debt was paid, the greedy villager sells Magulu to slave traders that can offer more than her father. On a slave ship called The Amistad she befriends the other children as well as a captive named Cinque. Through Cinque they learn of a rebellion brewing to overthrow the slavers above. The plan works but attempts to steer home to West Africa are thwarted. The Africans are taken to jail in New Haven and there Magulu begins to learn more about the land where she has landed. Yet through it all she never stops thinking of home. Behold one of the rare true tales of 19th century slavery that has an honestly happy ending.
Edinger did originally attempt to write this book as a straight work of nonfiction. As she writes in the Author’s Note, Edinger was forced to choose between writing a book that makes assumptions every step of the way and going the fiction route. She chose the latter. A wise move, honestly, since I can’t tell you how many “nonfiction” books I’ve read this year alone that make broad, all-compassing assumptions but couch them within the words “probably” and “perhaps”, assuming that this will make everything fine and dandy. Freed from the restrictions of nonfiction, Edinger is free to say how Magulu feels about everything from the awfulness of female 19th century dress to snow (which is awesome at first and then, in time, dreary). Her intentions in terms of religion and how she chose to live out the rest of her life has roots in the experiences of her youth. With some extrapolation, it all comes together.
Of course the ultimate irony is that the book is better cited, with more primary source documents and original research, than much of the nonfiction for kids you’ll find today. Edinger took the time to seek out every possible reference she could find to Magulu, and to retrace her steps from New Haven to Farmington and Oberlin. She is able to actually find sympathetic engravings of Joseph Cinquez from the time period (no easy task, I suspect). An extensive bibliography of Selected Sources provides all the sources Ms. Edinger used in the course of her research. If there aren’t any children’s sources there’s a very good reason for that. This is the first book of its kind.
I have read my own fair share of fictional books set in Africa that were written by ex-Peace Corps members or teachers who lived there for a time, and I can tell you that the experience of living and working in Africa does not immediately translate into the ability to keep the book from patronizing the locals. Ms. Edinger mentions in her Author’s Note that she spent two years in Sierra Leone in the 1970s. That means her interests lie there, but do her abilities? With a relief felt deep in my bones I can tell you that the woman knows how to write. Her book doesn’t infantalize the characters. If Magulu feels amazed at things that are new to her, she is at least a kid. There’s a reality to her wonder. Now the Kirkus review of this book found fault with the timeline, saying that the, “narrative occasionally skips weeks or months without alerting readers.” I’m sure that if we were talking about a work of straight nonfiction this would indeed be problematic. As a work of fiction, I wasn’t particularly disturbed.
Then there was the question of religion. Magulu really did convert wholeheartedly and become known as Sarah Kinson when she was older. So if Edinger is to truly enter in the mind of her heroine, she has to show her slowly growing appreciation of the Christian religion. This is tricky territory that requires a kind of careful handling. Of course, none of the captives of the Amistad would have gotten home had it not been for church contributions. It’s not surprising to me that we don’t read many contemporary fictional works for kids that are sympathetic to Christian conversion. After all, it’s a hard topic to tackle well. But since Edinger, for all the that book is fiction, is attempting to veer as closely to the truth as possible, it was an unavoidable element.
The choice of Robert Byrd as illustrator was an interesting one. Byrd’s star has risen considerably, making him a go-to choice for illustrated nonfiction. What I find interesting about using him in this particular book is that he balances out the horror perfectly. Both he and Edinger had the unenviable task of telling a horrific tale (at least at the beginning) for small child readers. It’s important and needs to be told, and by the same token you can sugarcoat the truth. You can’t lie. Edinger handles this by being straightforward without being graphic. When the children come up after the attack on their Spanish captors she writes, “There was blood everywhere. White and African men lay dead and dying.” The accompanying picture is done almost without emotion. We see Africans and white men fighting with machetes and guns, but there’s no blood or grotesqueries. Compare this image with one earlier where Magulu is ripped from her mother’s arms by a slaver. “Sobbing, she held me tight until the traders pulled me away.” In the picture it is a far more peaceful scene, the girl between the two adults but without expression. It’s almost as if Byrd is protecting young readers by downplaying the raw emotions. The question is whether or not this is a good or bad thing. I think that as long as it isn’t displaying images that belies the text, the pictures have a use. This may all boil down to a deeper argument of the purpose of teaching children about the darker moments in history. Where this book lies on the spectrum is up for debate.
Aside from that, though, Byrd has done the book the ultimate service of making it beautiful. If the cover doesn’t convince you then consider the full page renderings of Magulu standing at the deck of a boat returning to Africa by moonlight. Or my personal favorites, the renderings of her dreams in the night of her mother, her father, and the village elders. The other nice thing is that Byrd doesn’t slip in some of the inaccurate images we too easily associate with the slave trade. For example, we’re all familiar with the image of white slavers traveling deep into the heart of Africa to capture slaves. The truth was more complicated than that, with white slavers often doing business with local Africans in procuring the slaves. The pictures reflect that reality.
If I had my way there would be a children’s literary award for every genre imaginable. From graphic and illustrated novels to poetry to comedy in a work of middle grade fiction. Add to that list “Books That Meld Fact and Fiction”. This encompasses every work of fiction based on the true life of a historical figure to some extent, but nothing comes close to Africa Is My Home in terms of sure research, heart, blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes an author writes a book and you can see the strings. Which is to say, you can see them working as hard as they can to make the title successful. Other authors write a book and it works so well on the page as to seem effortless. That’s the general gist of Edinger’s first for kids. Not the last, one hopes. We need more books that aren’t afraid to take fiction to an entirely new level.
On shelves October 8th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review
Like This? Then Try:
- Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voice from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
- The Middle Passage: White Ships / Black Cargo by Tom Feelings
- Stolen Into Slavery: The True Story of Solomon Northup by Judith Bloom Fradin
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
Gotta love the book trailer for this one. Just sublime.