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Travel the world with your children through these beautiful children’s books about West Africa! Below you will find picture books about Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. They range from biographies and folk tales to modern stories about life in West Africa today.
Children’s Books About Mali
Sundiata: Lion King of Mali is the story of the legendary founder of the Mali empire. (The present day country of Mali takes its name from this medieval kingdom in West Africa and represents part of the territory that this powerful kingdom occupied at its height). Based on oral tradition, this telling focuses on the hardships Sundiata had to overcome. to become king. The cut paper illustrations are beautiful, and the narration mimics the cadences of the traditional griot storytellers. I highly recommend this book to combat the typical silence in most classrooms about the history of African kingdoms.
My kids love graphic novels, so I was thrilled to come across a comic version of the history of Sundiata. Sundiata: A Legend of Africa makes a thrilling read for any child who loves adventure. It has intrigue, battles, and magic – a surefire way to convince young readers that history is anything but boring!
If your child has any chance of reading about medieval West Africa in one of their history books, it will likely be about Mansa Musa, the celebrated king who distributed so much gold on his pilgrimage to Mecca that he caused inflation in Egypt and the surrounding areas for years after. After his trip, he became the only African king featured on European maps of the continent. Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali, gorgeously illustrated by the award-winning team Leo & Diane Dillon, tells of the powerful monarch whose fame carries down through history.
Never Forgotten, a Junior Library Guild selection, is a gorgeous picture book about a difficult subject – slavery. It reminds me a bit of Roots in that we come to know Musafa and his native Mali intimately before he is stolen away, so that we can more deeply appreciate the horror of what is lost and what might have been. Author Kissack, who dedicated herself to filling the gap in African American children’s literature, wrote that through this book she sought to “create a story that addresses that answers the question that all of us who are descendants of the Taken ask: ‘Were we missed?’ I answer with a resounding ‘Yes! We were never forgotten.” Illustrated by the same award-winning team that illustrated Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali above.
The Hatseller And The Monkeys is the first book on this list from Coretta Scott King Honor winner Baba Wagué Diakité, who was born and raised in a small village in Mali. This tale is one he heard as a boy from his uncle, a version of a story popular in many parts of the world about a seller who has his wares stolen by monkeys while napping. As always, Wagué takes the opportunity to teach his young readers about the culture and art of Mali, as in the wide-brimmed dibiri hats sold by the main character.
The Magic Gourd is also by Baba Wagué Diakité. (For a treat, flip to the back cover to see a picture of him with his daughters, one of whom would grow up to collaborate with her father on a book featured below!) The Magic Gourd is a fable about a kind rabbit who receives a magic gourd as a thank you after helping a chameleon. The gourd, which fills magically with whatever the owner desires, keeps Rabbit and his loved ones well fed even during a famine. Yet when the magic gourd is stolen by a greedy king, it takes another magical gift from the chameleon and the rabbit’s quick thinking to retrieve the gift and teach the king a lesson in friendship and generosity.
I Lost My Tooth in Africa is one of the most famous children’s books set in Africa. Written by Baba Wagué Diakité’s daughter Penda Diakité and illustrated by him, it is based on the true story of when Penda’s younger sister Amina lost her tooth while they were visiting their father’s homeland of Mali. She is so excited when she finds out that when you lose a tooth in Africa, the African tooth fairy will give you a chicken! My kids loved this story, perhaps especially because they can relate to experience of losing teeth – and of visiting another country where their father was born.
Gabrielle Emanuel, who now works for NPR, spent a year in Mali, working in the health sector. She often read to a young friend there and became appalled at the lack of books that reflected the local landscape and culture. Her book The Everlasting Embrace is a response to this need. It is a beautiful tribute to mothers and the close bond they create with their babies through the traditional practice of babywearing. As a mother goes through her day – grinding millet, going to the market – we see the world as experienced from the loving “cocoon” in which the child spends her days.
My Baby is another beautiful book about a mother’s love for her child. It showcases the art of bogolan, a traditional technique of painting cloth with specially prepared mud. Nakunte learns the art from her mother and uses it to make cloth for weddings and funerals, until she is finally ready to make a beautiful cloth for her own baby, decorated with symbols teaching the little one about the creatures of her home.
Children’s Books About Burkina Faso
The Water Princess is a beautifully done book based on the childhood memories of supermodel Georgie Badiel. A young girl dreams of having clean water close by, but instead she and her mother (along with many other women and girls) must spend much of their day walking miles to fill their jars with dusty water. My children could not believe that this was still a problem today and had trouble imagining what it would be like to have to work so hard just for a drink of water – and that the drink wouldn’t even be clean. There is more information about lack of access to clean water at the back of the book. You can find out even more from the Georgie Badiel Foundation, which has made providing clean, accessible water a cornerstone of its work in Burkina Faso.
All Aboard for the Bobo Road is a fun children’s book about the Fulani people of Burkina Faso, written by Stephen Davies, who spent ten years living among them as a missionary. It focuses on a common experience there – riding in a minibus! It is a beautiful, colorful ride past a lake full of hippos, by a waterfall and old rock domes, through the forest and into the big city. See for yourself why Davies calls this region one of his favorite places in the world.
Children’s Book About Niger
Though I found many books about other countries in West Africa (especially Mali), unfortunately I was only able to find one about Niger. Don’t Spill the Milk! comes from author Stephen Davies (see above), a missionary who spent ten years living in Burkina Faso and regularly visiting Mali and Niger. This is the sweet story of a Fulani girl carefully delivering milk to her father, who is tending sheep high in the grasslands. As she walks to see her father, we see many features of the region, including the endangered West African giraffe. A story of love and understanding between a father and daughter.
Share your favorite book in the comments!
Original article published here