Category Archives: African

Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by AG Ford

Under the Same SonAn 85-year-old grandmother makes a special birthday trip from the U.S. to Tanzania where three generations celebrate with a surprise safari through Serengeti National Park. The story is special enough … but this one is far more layered …

Grandmother Bibi is Rachel Robinson, the widow of the legendary Jackie Robinson who broke the race barrier in 1947 to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball. The author (and co-traveler) is daughter Sharon Robinson and the family’s birthday adventure is hosted by her brother, David Robinson, who “… in 1984, gave up all that was familiar to him – and started a new life in East Africa.”

Artist AG Ford captures all the important moments with brilliant hues and rich vibrancy, from Bibi and Sharon’s arrival in Dar Es Salaam, to their few days in David’s home “exchanging gifts, telling stories, and filling in the gaps from their years apart,” to the unforgettable safari which ends on a historical beach on the Indian Ocean.

The final day of Bibi’s birthday trip takes the family to Bagamoyo, which “‘… was once home to a slave-trading post,’” David explains. “‘People were captured and brought here with their legs chained together to keep them from running away. ‘Bagamoyo’ comes from a Swahili phrase that means ‘to let go of one’s heart.””

The somber moment becomes both a historical lesson as well as a celebration of the deep bonds of family: “‘Your great-great-grandparents were captured on the west coast of Africa and shipped to America, to the state of Georgia,’” David tells his children. As an adult, David made the voyage back: “‘I wanted to return to my ancestral past. And I made my home here with you.’” In the detailed “Author’s Note,” at book’s end, Sharon further explicates: “As the founder of a coffeegrowers’ cooperative, David has committed his life to partnering with the people of this region to fight poverty and foster economic development.”

While continents and time zones might separate families all over the world, heroes like Jackie Robinson and his descendents who continue a legacy of social activism, ensure today’s”‘freedom to travel back and forth.’” And, as Bibi reminds us all, “‘We may be separated by land and sea, but we are always under the same sun.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African, African American

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Burgess BoysSmall-town Maine, where Elizabeth Strout was born and raised, has been home to her four novels. In her first title since she won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for her novel-in-13-stories, Olive Kitteridge, Strout returns to tiny Shirley Falls where she set her acclaimed, chilling debut, Amy and Isabelle. This time, in The Burgess Boys, she brings the whole wide world to the isolated mill town, from ex-residents who never intended to go ‘home,’ to refugee transplants who long to return to people and places that no longer exist, to the ubiquitous media with their imposing, exposing cameras that send the worst of Shirley Falls around the globe.

As soon as they were able, the Burgess boys left Maine, both becoming lawyers who landed in Brooklyn. Jim, the eldest, became a celebrity corporate attorney and lives a lavish lifestyle with his old money trophy wife and their almost-grown children. Bob also chose the law, but most of his Legal Aid clients can’t afford to pay him; his ex-wife remains his best friend, although she left him for a Park Avenue life with a new husband who could give her the children she desperately needed. Bob’s acerbic twin, Susan, is the only Burgess who stayed Shirley Falls-bound, solo-parenting a quiet teenage son, Zach, after her husband abandoned the family to move to ‘real’ Sweden after growing up in New Sweden, Maine.

Lonely, isolated, friendless, Zach’s done something terrible: a pig’s head, a mosque, Ramadan. Susan hysterically calls her brothers home. For the first time in decades, the Burgess siblings are forced together to face not only the charges threatening Zach’s entire future, but their own troubled relationships with each other, as well as their long-dead parents – a father killed too young in a horrible accident, and a mother whose bitterness poisoned them all. In spite of Zach’s heinous act, Strout avoids absolutes, moving fluidly between condemnation and empathy by adding diverse community voices, including a devout Somali storeowner who witnessed his son’s brutal murder, a twice-divorced Unitarian minister, and an elderly lodger in Susan’s home who has listened for years to Zach’s loud music … and his tears alone at night.

The single extraneous voice appears in the “Prologue” and then disappears: an unnamed Shirley Falls transplant to New York explains how she came to “‘write the story of the Burgess kids’” – those opening five pages wouldn’t be missed. And since I’m quibbling, might I add a quick warning that what ubiquitous narrator Cassandra Campbell (hard to pick up a book without getting her stuck in your ears) thinks are regional and international flourishes will just need to be ignored. Thankfully, Strout’s words are stronger than Campbell’s grating accents. By book’s end, what you’ll remember most are the challenges, negotiations, joys, acceptances, and renewals of the remarkably resilient bonds that make up family.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, Nonethnic-specific

My Name Is Blessing by Eric Walters, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

My Name Is BlessingMuthini – whose name means “suffering … [a]ll because he was born with no fingers on his left and only two on his right” – is the youngest of nine children who live with their grandmother in Kenya. What Nyanya – grandmother – lacks in money or food, she makes up with “extra portions of love.” One day, Nyanya takes the long, difficult walk to Muthini’s school to tell him she can no longer care for him: “He was too young and she was too old.”

With tears and resignation, Nyaya and Muthini walk “hand in hand” to meet a man named Gabriel whose home is filled with children laughing and playing. Gabriel tells the tired pair that he has “‘no room for Muthini … But there is always room for a blessing.’” Muthini becomes Baraka; by changing his name, he changes his future: “‘I can never look at you and see suffering and I don’t want others to see it either,’” Gabriel explains, “‘I want them to hear your name and see what I see, what your Nyanya sees: a blessing. Baraka.’” And thus Baraka’s new life begins …

Here’s the best part of this book: it’s true! The final five pages re-tells the story with on-site photographs that begin, “Baraka is a real person. And so is Grace, his grandmother or Nyanya.” Award-winning Canadian author Eric Walters – who’s written over 90 titles for children and young adults! – co-founded and runs The Creation of Hope which cares for Kenyan orphans, including Baraka and his family; Baraka is directly sponsored by Walters’ own daughter and her friend. For you savvy givers, rest assured, “A commitment has been made that 100% of money that comes from schools or children will always go to service“: 23 cents pays to plant a sapling, $20 will purchase farm tools for a family, and $50 will cover the costs of the Rolling Hills Residence for a full day. And after reading Blessing’s story, surely you’ll be hard pressed not want to share you own blessings with others, too …

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, African, Canadian

Splash, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Splash, Anna Hibiscus!As gorgeous as the large snowflakes are where I am, just to be contrary, I’m wishing for sun and surf! I can’t remember the last time I went splish-splashing, so clearly I’m overdue! For now, I’ll just have to join Anna Hibiscus on her beckoning blue beach …

“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa,” introduces British Nigerian storyteller Atinuke. In her latest adventure, Anna is “at the beach with her whole family”; although the “laughing waves” are calling, everyone around her seems too busy to test the waters. Her grandparents are reading, her father and uncle are talking to friends, her mother and aunties are busy braiding their hair, even her cousins – with such fabulous names as Benz, Wonderful, Clarity, and Common Sense! – are doing anything but getting wet.

The waves will wait for no one, so Anna decides to go to “Splash!” and “Jump!” and “Hee-hee!” with such glee that her entire family finally realizes it’s high time to share some wavy delights. Anna’s playful joy brings everyone together, because “Anna Hibiscus is amazing too.”

Atinuke, who describes herself as “a traditional oral Nigerian storyteller,” draws on her own bicultural experience of growing up in Africa and England as the child of a Nigerian father and an English mother. She wrote her Anna Hibiscus series, she explains on her website, because “as a story teller … it was clear from children’s questions how little they still knew about the Africa that I am from.” Working together with illustrator Lauren Tobia – whose winsome art is as adept at capturing landscapes of sea, surf, and city, as she is at imbuing each character with charmingly nuanced expressions – Atinuke’s “Amazing Africa” becomes a vibrant celebration of family and home with “amazing” Anna Hibiscus as an adorable multicultural guide.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, African, British, Hapa

Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

Sweetness in the BellyRaised as a Roman Catholic convinced of at least one past life as a Jewish grandmother, I find myself in my old age utterly wary of institutionalized religions, repeatedly alarmed at what we human beings commit upon one another in the name of various (one-and-only) gods. In our post-9/11 era of heightened intolerance, this quote from British-born, Canadian-domiciled author Camilla Gibb‘s Sweetness struck me as especially sane: “My religion is full of color and possibility and choice; it’s a moderate interpretation … one that allows you to use whatever means allow you to feel closer to God … It’s an interpretation where … one’s personal struggle [is] to be a good Muslim, not a fight against those who are not Muslim.” Replace “Muslim” with any other religion, and it still remains a rational, caring, open-minded statement … oh, if only we could all be so accepting.

Meet Lilly, a white Muslim, “born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in the Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from nappies in Sicily and walking by the time we got to the Algarve.” The only child of “two solitary renegades who’d met at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s,” Lilly’s early life was rootless: “‘You don’t want to spoil the journey by missing what you’ve left and worrying about where you’re going,’” her parents insisted. When Lilly is orphaned at 8, the rest of her upbringing continues in a Sufi shrine “on the Moroccan edge of the Sahara,” quietly educated and nurtured under the guidance of the Qur’an and the Great Abdal.

At 16, Lilly is sent on pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where her gender does not allow her access to the intended sheikh’s home and she is instead thrust upon an impoverished, angry mother of young children. Eventually Lilly’s open teachings of the Qua’ran earn her both students and respect – for awhile – as well as the attention of a young local doctor.

By 1974 when the Derg overthrows Emperor Selassie and plunges the country into tragic violence, Lilly flees for an unfamiliar ‘home.’ With her cultural fluidity and linguistic efficiency, she works as a hospital nurse in a London hospital that serves the city’s downtrodden. She creates a family-of-sorts with Amina, a single mother – also from Harar – and her children, the youngest of whom Lilly helps delivers in an alley. Together the two women form a community organization that helps incoming refugees reunite with their families. “Our work is not as altruistic as it sounds,” Lilly admits. Amina awaits news of her missing husband; Lilly of her good Dr. Aziz.

For Gibb, Sweetness was 16 years in the making, including two years spent living in Harar while finishing her Oxford PhD in social anthropology. A university friendship with a young Ethiopian woman who arrived in Toronto as a refugee was Gibb’s initial inspiration for the novel; “this book is my attempt to understand” her friend’s experience of dislocation, of feeling “like a ghost” that first year of escape and arrival. Seamlessly moving between two decades, two countries, and multiple cultures, Gibb presents a jarring, difficult story with empathetic grace, carefully sifting through what we hang onto and what we must let go in order to do more than just survive, to somehow become whole.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, British, Canadian

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names“We are on our way to Budapest,” 10-year-old Darling announces as NoViolet Bulawayo‘s 2013 Booker longlisted debut novel opens. ‘We’ includes “Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina,” banded together with plans to steal guavas as they sneak out of Paradise, the ironically named shantytown home the children refer to as a “kaka toilet.” In spite of warnings, the children regularly, longingly, venture to London, Los Angeles, Paris, in addition to Budapest – all the nearby wealthy neighborhoods where they will never be welcomed. Already Darling is determined she will be “blazing out of this kaka country” – Zimbabwe, although never named, where Bulawayo was born and raised.

Darling comes of age living with her grandmother (who still keeps Queen Elizabeth-visaged British money hidden in her Bible under her bed long after only U.S. dollars and South African rands have any buying power), her traveling mother who needs to support three generations of women, and her deadbeat father who unexpectedly returns from South Africa as a barely recognizable near-skeleton. Sundays are spent perspiring on a mountain, where “that crazy Prophet Revelations Bitchington MBorro” one week climbs on top of a screaming woman to exorcise her demons, and Chipo – silenced by her mysterious pregnancy at age 11 – reclaims her voice to reveal she was raped by her grandfather.

Before Chipo’s baby is born, countrywide violence will send Darling to the other side of the world. Degraded by colonial legacy and trapped in murderous unrest, survival means escape: “Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps.” Darling is one of the lucky few who has an Aunt Fostalina who arrives to take her away, seemingly to safety as her grandmother laments the “ruin” of their country. Even as she is buffered by new family and friends, Darling’s immigrant rebirth comes at a high price: “They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are …”

Labeled “A Novel” on the cover, Bulawayo’s chapters read more like short stories that could easily stand alone. The result is effectively jarring, creating a sense of disconnect that jumps from story to story, as if echoing Darling’s disjointed coming-of age – her African childhood defined by inequity and horror, and the subsequent adaptations she must make as a stranger in a strange land. Stuck in the ears, narrator Robin Miles imbues Darling’s journey with resonating tension, regret, and hope.

The Booker shortlist debuts in a couple of weeks, on September 10, when this year’s “Booker dozen” of 13 will drop to five or six titles. I’m betting Names will stay in the running … at least until October 15 when Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland will remain the last one standing. Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, African American

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Even before Naomi Benaron‘s debut novel hit shelves last year, it earned a substantial literary gold sticker as the winner of the biennial 2010 Bellwether Prize – the largest monetary award for unpublished fiction in North America, which was rebranded in 2011 as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. But before you begin Running, might I suggest you read Benaron’s “Fiction and Social Responsibility: Where Do They Intersect?” (her mother’s story of ripping off the Nazi flag from a German ambassador’s car in Switzerland is especially memorable); her careful, thoughtful essay provides enriching context as to why and how Benaron writes what she does.

Through fiction, Benaron humanizes the inconceivable numbers of the Rwandan genocide into individual lives. Using carefully researched historical, cultural, political details, she introduces a young Tutsi, Jean Patrick Nkuba, and follows him from his Rwandan boyhood when he loses his father and goes with his mother and brother to live with his uncle, to his adulthood on the other side of the world as he tries to make sense of all that he has managed to miraculously survive.

Jean Patrick is a gifted runner with Olympic potential. His nationally-lauded talent temporarily protects him when tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups begin to escalate. But by 1994 when the Tutsi slaughter by their Hutu neighbors erupts and an estimated half-million to a million Rwandans are massacred over 100 days, Jean Patrick will have to run for his life … and keep running. In one of the world’s most horrific man-made tragedies, Jean Patrick’s beliefs of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘truth’ and ‘lies,’ or ‘good’ and ‘evil’ no longer apply; all that he knows of his compassionate father, his courageous brother, the local bully, his beloved sweetheart, his devoted coach, and so many others, will be tested again and again and again.

A self-described social activist and fiction writer, Benaron is also a marathoner and Ironman triathlete: “My best lines come to me when I am in motion,” her website bio reveals. How fitting, then, that I took Running with me on multiple runs (it’s 14+ hours stuck in the ears), with inspiring pacing provided by narrator Marcel Davis. While I’m not quite sure about Davis’ Rwandan accent – which he seems to use or not use at his own will, as opposed to remaining constant according to the characters – Benaron’s story will keep you listening, even long after your legs have been thoroughly exhausted.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, Nonethnic-specific

The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji

Magic of SaidaPoisoned and hallucinating, a Canadian doctor lies in a hospital in the remote town of Kilwa in Tanzania. A stranger happens to hear a few brief details of the man’s outrageous story, and decides to introduce himself to this doctor with an Indian name – Kamal Punja – but an African appearance. From that chance encounter unravels a fantastical tale that covers multiple generations and continents … and begs an answer to the question, “Do you believe in magic?”

Kamal is the only child of an African woman whose Indian husband disappeared from their lives. His favorite childhood playmate is a young girl named Saida whose ancestors include a poet and warrior, a traitor and patriot in whose lives reflect the violent, tumultuous history of a repeatedly colonized land. At 11, Kamal is suddenly, wrenchingly separated from his mother and everything familiar when he’s sent to live with a paternal uncle in the capital city of Dar es Salaam. There he learns to be Indian first, eliding his African origins. That he never forgives his mother for what he considers betrayal and abandonment remains a disturbing, haunting element throughout.

Kamal grows into an educated young man of relative privilege, sent to university in neighboring Uganda, and yet he never loses sight of Saida’s presence so far away, certain that they will one day be united. Caught in the latest political upheavals overtaking his country and continent, Kamal lands in Canada where he becomes a successful doctor. Now solidly in middle age with a highly successful practice, married with two grown (completely Westernized) children, Kamal’s longing for his past brings him ‘home’ to Kilwa, desperately in search of answers about his beloved Saida.

M.G. Vassanji, who has twice won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize (the inaugural 1994 award for The Book of Secrets, and again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall – my personal favorite), surely draws on personal experience: born in Africa of Indian descent and Canada-domiciled, “If pressed, Vassanji considers himself African Asian Canadian,” his biography states on his personal website. “[A]ttempts to pigeonhole him along communal (religious) or other lines, however, he considers narrow-minded, malicious, and oppressive,” his biography also warns!

As much as Saida is a sweeping epic, it also proves to be a clever allegory of returning to the past to catch a glimpse of alternate versions of the present: had Kamal stayed in Kilwa, he could have been Lateef; had he pursued a literary degree, he could have been Martin; had he been trapped in some sort of colonial service, he could have been Markham; had he chosen to become a local doctor, he could have been (the ironically named) Dr. Engineer. The many ‘what-if’s of his life beg the ultimate question, who might have Saida been had she lived the life Kamal once promised her …?

Tidbit: If you’ve read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, you might be struck by some uncanny similarities – I certainly was! Saida is the better-written novel; Heartbeats arrived Stateside last year with a decade-plus of international bestseller status … choices, choices.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, African, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Indian African, South Asian American

War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel Lafrance, illustrated by Daniel Lafrance

War BrothersIf you look at the bottom of this post at “Filed under,” you’ll see this title is listed as both “Fiction” and “Nonfiction.” That’s not a mistake – and the explanation is found in the book’s “Postscript”: “This is a book of fiction based on interviews in Gulu, Uganda. Everything that happened in this book has happened, and is happening still.”

In 2002, 14-year-old Kitino Jacob begins writing his story on a lined notepad in his childish hand: “My story is not an easy one to tell, and it is not an easy one to read … There is no shame in closing this book now,” he warns. As if to underline the warning, for those who decide to continue, the panels depicting the most harrowing parts of the story are ominously edged in black.

Joseph Kony, guerilla leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – populated by stolen and brutalized children – is terrorizing then entire country of Uganda. On the eve of traveling to their school, Jacob and his friend Tony are assured of their safety: “Kony cannot get us. Do not be worried. We are safe. I heard Father talking to headmaster Haycoop about hiring extra guards to surround the school. There is no reason to fear Kony and his rebel soldiers.”

But on the first night back at George Jones Seminary for Boys, a motley gang of LRA recruits murder the adults and kidnap the students. “It’s true … they’re just kids!” Jacob immediately realizes, but these are the very ‘kids’ who force Jacob and his friends to kill or be killed. They are starved, abused, and turned into murderers. The “good boys,” he learns, “become especially mean, especially dangerous,” like Tony who once aspired to be a priest but is quickly transformed into a killing machine. Somehow, Jacob manages to hold onto his humanity, convinced that his father will save him and his friends.

Last year saw a fervor of Kony-related activity in the media: from the film, Kony 2012which went viral, to the filmmaker’s public breakdown, to the outcry of what happened to almost $20 million in donated funds to the film’s producing company Invisible Children. “While Kony has lost much of his power, he continues to carry on his crimes across the border in the Congo and DRC,” Jacob explains in a final closing letter dated 2012 at book’s end. That Kony remains free is terrifying, but his LRA – as diminished as it is – represents only a fraction of the estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world. What these children must endure after surviving war in order to even attempt to return to their former world will be an even greater battle.

While capturing the horrific tragedy of the life of child soldiers, co-creators Sharon E. McKay and Daniel Lafrance also manage to offer inspiration: war decimates, and yet everlasting bonds can also be forged. “[T]his is also a story of hope, courage, friendship, and family,” Jacob reminds. He echoes his friend Hannah, “… that if the world knows that child soldiers suffer unimaginable cruelty and pain, then help will come. I hope this is right.”

With testimony as formidable as War Brothers, we can’t say we didn’t know. And now that we know, we must help, offer hope, and make change. That’s a mantra for us all.

Readers: Middle Grade (with caution), Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Nonfiction, African, Canadian

Mimi’s Village: And How Basic Health Care Transformed It by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

When Mimi and her little sister Nakkissi go to fetch the family’s water from the stream one hot day, Mimi does something she knows she shouldn’t: she realizes that tired Nakkissi can’t walk all the way home without a drink, so she gives her “two handfuls of brownish water” from the stream – even knowing that the water must first be boiled before drinking. That evening, Nakkissi falls seriously ill with a sickness that too many village children don’t survive. Armed with a machete, hoe, and sticks to ward off any wild animals, the whole family walks in the middle of the night to the next village in search of help.

With simple, clean care at the health clinic, Nakkissi recovers quickly. Nurse Tela convinces the family to stay another night because the next day is vaccination day. Mimi watches and learns as Nurse Tela tends to pregnant women, babies, and many children more ill than Nakkissi. Inspired by what she sees, when they return home, Mimi shares her “big dream” with her father, who discusses it with the village elders … and three months later, that dream becomes a most welcome, necessary reality. What might have been a family tragedy proves to be healthy salvation for Mimi’s whole community.

Part of Canada’s Kids Can Press‘ compelling, informative, entertaining CitizenKid series – “books that inform children about the world and inspire them to be better global citizens” – Mimi’s Village is “based on a blend of real stories.” Author Katie Smith Milway (who also wrote CitizenKid’s uplifting, based-on-real-life The Good Garden) definitely inspires readers with a good story … and then fortifies her audience with informative context and opportunities to take action. She shares the experiences of real-life nurse Felina Maiya of Zambia, who has thus far brought saving treatment and hygienic prevention techniques to 61 households since 2006. Milway also provides the ‘why’ of the importance of simple health care (diarrhea causes one in five deaths; malaria kills a child in sub-Saharan Africa every 45 sections), and how readers can get involved (a 7-year-old Canadian boy raised the funding to build a well in Uganda!) and new ways to create change (an African superstar performs concerts that urge his fans to use bed nets to prevent malaria).

In this season of privileged plenty for so many of us lucky readers, resources like CitizenKid titles are priceless. Invest in a few (or all!) and encourage your kiddies to go global: with the help of CitizenKid, teach them now that actions speak louder than words.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, African, Canadian, Nonethnic-specific