Anna Hibiscus: Humor and Wisdom with a Capital W

(written by Danielle)

The eight-book Anna Hibiscus series, written by Atinuke and illustrated by Lauren Tobia, sparks laughter and brings to life everyday conflicts and difficulties arising from differences among people. There is so much to love about these books! Set in Africa and in Canada, the series explores the polarities of African and Western cultures, modern and traditional ways, city and village life, rich and poor, young and old, sick and well. 

The series begins with Anna Hibiscus as a young child who has not yet started school. She lives in an African city with her white Canadian mother, black African father, twin younger brothers, and their extend family. The old, white house and surrounding compound frames a way of life where extended family members work together in creating a home. 

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 As the series progresses, Anna Hibiscus travels to visit Granny Canada for the Christmas holiday. We see Anna discover and adapt to geographical and cultural differences including snow, food, and attitudes towards dogs. As she meets other children, Anna must face their assumptions about her. When she sleds farther down a hill than the others, one of the children shouts, “’Africans cannot do that!’” Anna thinks about her African Grandmother and what she would do. Anna realizes if she does not say something, she will feel shame. Holding her head high she declares that what she can and cannot do well is because she is Anna, not because she is African. She goes on to say, “I only want to be friends with people who want to be friends with me because I am Anna. Not because I am African” (p.74-75). 

 In the sixth book, Go Well Anna Hibiscus, after Anna returns to Africa, she travels to her grandparents’ village. Once again Anna finds herself in a new place among a group of children who perceive her as different. “’Oyinbo!’” they shout at her, hurling “the word for light-skinned foreigner” as an insult (p. 55-56). Heartbroken and confused, Anna retreats to the village compound. With the guidance of her Grandfather, Anna considers how oyinbo may and may not inform her identity. Together they unpack the judgment in this label. Grandfather encourages Anna to think for herself rather than taking on the judgments of others. In this conversation, Grandfather shares this advice: 

We cannot control what other people think is good and what they think is bad…So we have to be clear about what we think, and what we say (p.66).

The story of Anna and the village children is woven into the story of her Grandmother’s encounter with dogs who have nudged their way into the compound. Grandmother becomes frightened and cowers as one of the dogs approaches, barking loudly. Anna, who has gained a different perspective of dogs from her time in Canada, recognizes the dogs’ hunger and lures them away with a bit of meat. As Anna explains to her Grandmother the dogs were not dangerous, her Grandmother protests, asking why a dog would bark and growl if not dangerous. Anna whispers, “It knew you were afraid…and it knew because you were afraid, you might try to hurt it” (p.63). The overlay of the group of children barking “Oyinbo,” which Anna does not understand, with the pack of barking dogs, which Anna does understand, gives profound insight into the behavior of groups and possible responses of the individual. The encouragement to think for oneself and to act and speak with confidence is reinforced here and in other parts of Anna’s narrative. 

From simple geography recognizing Africa is a continent, not a country, to colorful glimpses into culture, Anna’s stories provide fertile ground for learning about places and people. Depth can be found as well in many stories acknowledging poverty, providing possible individual responses to poverty, and the role of education in improving circumstances. The cultural richness and wisdom conveyed in the Anna Hibiscus series cannot be overstated. These are funny, wise, beautiful books! 

The entire series of Anna Hibiscus is currently out of print.  Search for your local independent bookstore's website here, or click here to search for the title to purchase online.

Reference List in Book Order

  1. Atinuke. (2010). Anna Hibiscus. Tulsa: Kane Miller – EDC Publishing.
  2. Atinuke. (2010). Hooray for Anna Hibiscus. Tulsa: Kane Miller – EDC Publishing
  3. Atinuke. (2011). Good Luck Anna Hibiscus. Tulsa: Kane Miller – EDC Publishing.
  4. Atinuke. (2011). Have Fun Anna Hibiscus. Tulsa: Kane Miller – EDC Publishing.
  5. Atinuke. (2012). Welcome Home Anna Hibiscus. London: Walker Books.
  6. Atinuke. (2014). Go Well Anna Hibiscus. London: Walker Books.
  7. Atinuke. (2015). Love from Anna Hibiscus. London: Walker Books.
  8. Atinuke. (2016). You're Amazing Anna Hibiscus. London: Walker Books.

PS – Here is a link to a 2011 interview with author Atinuke about the first portion of the Anna Hibiscus series.

 

 

 

 

Homemade Love and Overcoming Fear of the Dark: A Call for an Elemental Shift in Language

(Posted by Danielle)

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bell hook’s Homemade Love, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, introduces readers to Girl Pie who is her mama’s “sweet, sweet,” her daddy’s “honey bun chocolate dew drop.” In these colorful pages, we see Girl Pie delight in her parents’ love for her, and we see her smile fade as she stands amid the pieces of a broken vase. Her mother’s arms cross and her foot taps. Shame is palpable. With the turn of a page, Girl Pie is framed between her mother and father as she repairs the red vase. A glue bottle with a picture of a heart on it sits on the table. Girl Pie learns to make repairs with love and then let it go, cartwheeling through the grass. The closeness and warmth of her parents permeate every word and illustration, showing a way to create a foundation for a beautiful life to unfold. The book ends with bedtime and preparing Girl Pie to sleep alone in her own bed, “No need to fear the dark place. ‘Cause everywhere is home.”

Beyond poetic language and the colorful illustrations, Homemade Love gives the essential reminder that darkness, nighttime, is a natural and safe place to be. The book reminds me that nighttime is a valuable portion of a twenty-four hour day. A time for rest and renewal. It also reminds me of my culture’s fear of the dark. It reminds me of ubiquitous portrayals of light as good and dark as bad.  It permeates our language, and I hear those around me saying “these are dark times,” and “we have to combat the darkness.” As a White mother of Black children, I have a sense of some of the effects of the light and dark dichotomy and the use of the word “dark” to mean, bad, evil, hopeless. “Mommy, a girl at school says brown fairies are bad,” is one example how the malalignment of “dark” affects my family.

My experiences as a parent and bell hook’s Homemade Love inspire me to see how I can shift my own everyday language to make dark and light whole again. To honor the necessary place of light and dark in a day, in the seasons of the year, and in the quiet places of my heart. When I mean good, I say “good” instead of light. When I mean bad, I say “bad” instead of dark. I am inclined to say I would like to remove the judgement from use of the words “light” and “dark,” but that is not really true. What is true for me is that I would like to double the goodness of both words. I want to multiply the goodness of the beautiful, safe, peaceful dark. To amplify the warmth, richness, and beauty of all that is dark, brown, and black.  Yes, that is what I really want.

An elemental shift in language, moving away from articulating light and dark as opposing forces, can be the seed of a deeper change of how children and adults relate to one another. It may open the door to feeling safe in actual nighttime darkness, it may recognize the goodness of brown fairies, and it may allow us to celebrate each other in complete honor of our differences.

Purchase here on IndieBound, A Community of Independent Local Bookstores.

hooks, b. and Evans, W.S. (2002). New York: Jump at the Sun, Hyperion Books for Children.

Jamaica’s Find: Example in parenting a child through a soul fever

(Posted by Danielle)

In Juanita Havill’s book illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien, six-year-old Jamaica finds a forgotten stuffed dog at the park. Instead of taking it to the lost and found, Jamaica brings the dog home to keep for her own. When her mother tells her that she should have returned the dog and when she is not allowed to bring it to the dinner table, Jamaica moves into what Kim John Payne describes as a “soul fever” in his book Simplicity Parenting (2009). Jamaica’s smile turns to a frown, she pouts, she says she doesn’t feel good, and stays in her room instead of helping with the dishes. Applying Payne’s theory, these symptom arise in children when “something's not right; they’re upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world…at odds with their truest selves” (p. 38).

Payne encourages parents to recognize their child’s soul fever, just as we recognize a fever brought on by physical illness, and to provide loving care in response. Specifically, he recommends quieting things down, bringing them close, and letting it run its course. We see Jamaica’s mother respond to her child’s soul fever much as Payne coaches parents. She shows empathy and understanding of her daughter’s budding love for the toy as she reflects, “it probably belongs to a girl just like Jamaica” (p.17).  Instead of insisting that her daughter complete her assigned chore, she stops what she is doing and goes to Jamaica’s room where she quietly sits by her child. “She didn’t say anything. After a while she put her arms around Jamaica and squeezed for a long time” (p. 23). In this quiet time with a loving parent close by, Jamaica is able to come to the decision to take the dog back to the park in the morning. The fever runs its course, and Jamaica can come back to herself and make a moral choice to return what does not belong to her.

At the park the next day, Jamaica meets the girl to whom “Edgar dog” belongs a sweet friendship begins. Through the arc of the story, we see Jamaica move from playing alone at the playground and wanting to keep something that wasn’t hers, to close family time where expectations were gently shared, and finally back to the park where friendship becomes more important than a material object. We also can trace the steps of a soul fever where a child is at odds with herself, reconciles her desire to have the toy and knowing it is right to give it back, and having time, along with non-verbal support, to come back to herself. In this beautifully illustrated book, Havill and O’Brien provide a map of a child experiencing a soul fever and a parent’s effective response.

Purchase here on IndieBound, A Community of Independent Local Bookstores.

Reference List

Havill, J. (1986).  Jamaica’s Find. Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company.

Payne, K. J. (2009). Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. New York: Ballentine Books Trade Paperbacks

On the Failings of White People

(Posted by Karen)

Note: I capitalize “White” to acknowledge White as a racial category; I use “people of color” refer to all non-White people.

I’m late coming to this work of fighting for racial justice. Embarrassingly late considering my age and life experience. I fall squarely into the category of lazy White, female, liberal American. Or at least I did for most of my life. I have benefitted from White privilege at every turn of my life, and only in the past few years have I taken a hard look at what that means.

Working for racial justice can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to recognizing how pervasive the system of White privilege is in our society and acknowledging our role in preserving it. But the only way to move towards racial justice is to dismantle White privilege; so this work must be done, and it must be done by White people.

Since the election, I have seen several open letters to White people/women/liberals that outline our weaknesses, ignorance, and well-intended though empty efforts. A common thread in these letters is the observation that White people are lazy, and have a tendency of calling upon people of color to answer their questions about race and racism, and provide guidance on how to end the system(s) of oppression. I’ll be honest: a year ago I did not grasp the inappropriateness of White people asking non-White people for help in our fight for racial justice.

I remember participating in one of my first meetings with a group of activists passionate about fighting for racial justice. They were experienced and had devoted their professional and personal lives to this work - they had been at it for decades. Though equally passionate, I was a newcomer and knew very little about the expectations for White people. As we discussed what action we could take to engage people in our local community to stand up for racial justice, I realized there are implicit rules. Two of these rules are:

  1. Do not be a group of White people doing this work without the input from people of color. Grave mistakes have been made in this way – mistakes that misrepresent the work that needs to be done and cause more harm than forward movement.
  2. Do not ask people of color for help with this work.

For months I could not reconcile these two rules. Having heard all the pitfalls and errors that White people tend to make, I was too afraid to take action. I felt paralyzed by the seemingly contradictory rules: do not do this work without the input from people of color, but do not ask people of color for help.

I took a step back and took on the role of learner rather than activist. Although I have barely made a dent in the work I believe I need to do, I am beginning to understand those two rules. The system of White privilege is our system – we created it and we maintain it. In our position of privilege, we have the power to dismantle it. To do so, we have to take the time and initiative to learn the history of our own country and understand how past and current laws continue to support our White privilege. We have to figure out how to change the system.

We are not to ask people of color to do this work for us. But if we do even the smallest amount of listening, we’ll see that their help is everywhere. Hundreds of years of voices and stories – ideas, guidance, support, strength, direction – it is all already out there. We’ve just been ignoring it, oblivious to the voices that are not our own… for hundreds of years.

The open letters to White people/women/liberals that outline our weaknesses, our ignorance, our well-intended though empty efforts are exactly right. They call us out on our laziness and tendency to ignore the wealth of knowledge that has always been available to us. We are to do the work with input from people of color. The input is already available to us. To ask what it is or where to find it is lazy and obnoxious.

The open letters may be difficult to read, but they are so important. These letters are not intended to shut us down; they provide much needed constructive criticism from experts who know what needs to be done. The messages should be taken in deeply with the intent of turning it into meaningful, effective action. If we feel our defenses going up or feel inclined towards hurt feelings, we need to listen even harder – the words that have made us feel that way must be filled with the wisdom we need to hear. That wisdom is what White people need in order to break down the oppressive system of White privilege.

As I work to educate myself, I will share along the way, in hopes of encouraging others to engage as well. Please, join me.

Here are two excellent reads, both of which address the failings of White people/women/liberals: An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists and Somewhere in Between. I also strongly recommend On Safety Pins, Advocacy, Whiteness, and our field, which outlines the expectations for White people engaging in this work.

Kids and Racism

(Originally posted by Karen in September 2015 at YellowLadybird.com)

One of the most interesting parenting challenges I’m facing is figuring out how to integrate racial sensitivity/anti-bias education into our family life.

Many of our parenting choices are based on the Waldorf philosophy, which places great value on the wonderment of childhood. In practice, this means protecting childhood from the burdens of adulthood so that children can deeply and freely be children. In other words, it feels like a violation of childhood to tell our children that black people are being murdered by police officers. Of course this is an extreme example – we don’t have to tell our children that black people are being murdered in order to bring conversations about race into our daily lives. But even so, I admit it is a struggle for me to talk to my children about race.

However, all the research shows that talking to children about race from a young age is necessary in order to raise anti-bias children. For those invested in the Waldorf world of childhood reverence, this can be difficult to accept. After all, if we revere childhood as a time of wonderment, and as parents and educators we seek to create a warm, beautiful, and loving environment that is protected and secure, then when, where, and how do conversations about racism fit in?

I’ve gotten the impression that Waldorf education, in general, does not encourage overt and explicit conversations about race with young children. It is also fairly common for white parents – whether invested in the Waldorf philosophy or not – to feel uncomfortable discussing race with their children (Derman-Sparks & Ramsey, 2006).

But Rudolph Steiner, founder of the Waldorf education movement, had the goal of inspiring “individuals to take up a path of inner development, and to give practical guidance in creating the seeds for a new culture of true human freedom” (WECAN). This goal not only provides space for racial sensitivity/anti-bias work within a Waldorf approach, it also obligates us to bring this work to our children, especially if we truly want to achieve a new culture of true human freedom.

As I reflect back on the work I’ve done on this issue so far, I realize that I started out with the question “Do we” rather than “How do we” bring racial sensitivity /anti-bias education to young children. Over the past year, I’ve attended workshops, read books and articles, and participated in discussion groups, and from this work, two main points jump out at me as especially salient in moving from “Do we” to “How do we.”

First, children as early as kindergarten discriminate according to gender, race, and disability. Children are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism… the attribute they rely on is that which is most clearly visible… once a child identifies someone as most closely resembling himself, the child likes that person the most.” (Bronson & Merryman, 2009, p. 53).

Dr. Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin, ran an experiment in a kindergarten class to look at how this tendency for in-group preference plays out. Half of the kindergarten children were given blue t-shirts, and half were given red t-shirts; the children wore their t-shirts everyday for three weeks. The teacher never mentioned, pointed out, or grouped children according to the t-shirts. During the three weeks the children played with each other regardless of t-shirt color; however, at the end of the three weeks, children liked their own color better and believed the children in their own color group were more likely to win a race, be smarter, and be nicer. They also believed their color was a better group to belong to.

Bigler concludes, “We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender – they’re plainly visible. We don’t have to label them for them to become salient. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use t-shirt colors” (p. 53).

Study after study shows the same tendency for in-group preference. Regardless of how we view childhood or what measures we take to protect our children from the concept of racism, children will develop biased views according to skin color. If adults and educators say nothing about race children will develop racial preferences.

Second, no matter what measures we take to protect our children from the concept racism, racism is an institution and it is impossible to protect our children from the system that we are all a part of. Here are just a few examples of how my white children will experience the institution of racism:

  • Most of the books and movies my children are exposed to will feature main characters who look like them.
  • When my children go into a pharmacy, they will be able to find Band-Aids in their skin color.
  • My children will be able to shop alone without being followed, harassed, or suspected of shoplifting.
  • Society expects that my children will go to college, and when they are in their twenties, society will assume they are college educated.
  • When my children rent their first apartment, they can be pretty sure their neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to them.

(adapted from McIntosh, 1990)

None of these statements are true for a person of color; and these are just a few examples of how the institution of racism affects all of us, whether we live in a diverse community or a community that is mostly (or all) one race. My family experiences being white as a privilege, but "white privilege" is an unjust system and detrimental to society as a whole; breaking down the institution of racism and achieving racial justice is the goal. In order to succeed, we need to bring racial sensitivity/anti-bias education to our children, and research consistently shows that in order to raise anti-bias children, we need to talk early and openly to our children about race.

I am sure it is possible to bring anti-bias education to children in a way that still preserves the reverence and wonderment of childhood. As I dig deeper into this issue, my focus is on the question, “How do we talk to our children about race in a way that feels comfortable within our parenting approach and is effective in breaking down the racial institution that currently cripples our society?”

I don’t have answers yet, but I am fortunate to be taking on this work with people who come from different parenting approaches – those who hold dear the Waldorf values and those who do not – and who bring a wealth of knowledge about racism, anti-bias education, and childhood development.

I do believe we’ll learn a great deal as we explore this topic and share our knowledge and resources with each other and within our community.

References

Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurture shock: New thinking about children. New York: Twelve.

Derman-Sparks, L. & Ramsey, P. G. (2006). What if all the kids are white? Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families. New York: Teachers College Press.

McIntosh, P. (1990) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Excerpted essay reprinted in the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.

Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America. http://www.waldorfearlychildhood.org/wecan.php