‘[T]he more African children see themselves reflected in the pages of books they read, the more they will dream and know they can be anything they want to be.’
Ruby Yayra Goka
Ruby Goka, the prise winning Ghanaian novelist is right about the power of fiction to inspire children. Yet fiction for African children, in which African children, lives, dilemmas, issues, themes and settings are dominant, needs to be published more often. As Pule Lechesa observed, ‘[w]e must be honest about it, many – if not most – of celebrated children’s literature in the western world leave our African children cold and disinterested’ (quoted by Raphael).
My particlar concern here is the relative dearth of books for upper-middle grade readers. This is gap does not fit with likely demand for such books given what we know about children’s reading patterns and the benefits of their reading. It does not fit with the commercial opportunities these patterns and benefits afford. As we shall see, there is currently a flourishing of such literature, but there is still room for more.
I came across this gap after completing my own children’s book for older children, that was based in Tanzania, with the main characters mainly being Tanzanian. I’ve written this blog for two reasons. The first is to spell out the reasons why the relative lack of books like this is an issue and why we need more of them. There are six aspects to it that I can see.
- Children in this age group read the most
‘Upper-middle grade’ refers to 10-13 year olds. Its also called ‘tween’. It’s that age span that captures that magical moment in most children’s reading life when they are reading as much as they possibly can (especially at 10-11 years old) and gradually moving onto more adult, or young adult focused content.
Children’s hunger for books in these ages is quite phenomenal. It is visible in all sorts of data. For example, here are graphs of books read, and time spent reading, in the US and UK respectively.
Children also tend to buy, or have bought for them, three to five times as many books per person as any adult. The table below shows data from the UK.
- Children this age are reading more and more every year
The demand for children’s books is growing stronger and stronger. The population of book buyers in the UK is not growing, but the book market is. This is growth cannot be explained by the top best-sellers. The most popular authors do really well, but they do not account for all the increase. If anything their success creates more demand for more books.
- Children living outside the US and the UK want to read even more
The data I have presented above refer to children who tend to read less than their age mates in other countries. Children in the UK and US have tended to read less than most other children when compared to similar countries (see the graph below). The countries which brought us the phenomenon of Harry Potter are still rather reluctant readers compared to other nations.
We do not have data for reading patterns in African nations, but the gist of these trends is that the abundance of reading that I have described above is but the tip of the iceberg. Children of this age, if given half the chance, simply love to read.
- African countries have much larger potential markets for children’s literature than most others.
Demographically younger people are more numerous in African countries. They have many more children who are likely to be wanting to read books. For example, 5-19 year olds in the UK make up 17% of the population. In Tanzania they constitute 38%. This means that although Tanzania’s population is 10% smaller than that of the UK, in absolute terms the number of children who might want to read and buy books is twice as large, 22 million compared to 11 million.
If we project these trends into the future then the logic of demand becomes even more powerful. Currently there are 85.8 million children and young adults aged 5-19 in the combined markets of US, UK, Canada and Australia and New Zealand. In 2035 the young population in these five wealthy countries have increased by about 500,000 to 86.3 million. Numbers will barely increase. But in Anglophone Africa there are currently 200 million children and young adults. In 2035 this will increase by 56 million. There will be 256 million people aged 5-19 in Anglophone Africa. The rate of increase in Anglophone Africa is two orders of magnitude higher than the main current markets for English children’s fiction. The young population of Nigeria alone (currently 77 million compared to the USA at 61 million) will, in 2035, be substantially larger (105 million) than the combined young population of these five wealthier countries.
- Reading for pleasure makes you cleverer
Reading ability is rightly prized the world over because it is associated with greater educational achievements and the ability to make more out of life’s opportunities. The research in this area is unambiguous.
‘Children’s leisure reading is important for educational attainment and social mobility and suggest that the mechanism for this is increased cognitive development. Once we controlled for the child’s test scores at age five and ten, the influence of the child’s own reading remained highly significant, suggesting that the positive link between leisure reading and cognitive outcomes is not purely due to more able children being more likely to read a lot, but that reading is actually linked to increased cognitive progress over time.’
Therefore we can expect that, not do will children want to read more, but parents who want their children to do well in education will want them to read too.
- African countries are richer than records show
Data on wealth and economic activity in many African nations can be highly inaccurate. Ghana and Nigeria famously revised their economic status from low income to upper middle income overnight following improvements in government statistics. But new research also shows that even well-recognised and respected data on poverty systematically overstates poverty levels because it completely ignores important assets in which rural people are investing. For example, in Tanzania we know that rural poverty levels have remained stubbornly high, at the same time as rural people are also building much better houses. The data do not recognise the resources families have to invest in things which matter to them (such as their children’s learning).
Source: Brockington and Noe 2020; The Long-term Livelihood Change Project
Secondary school attendance in many African nations has dramatically increased in recent years. Thus in many African countries we have a large and growing population of children whose families are growing increasingly wealthy who are likely to want good books to read. There are new global initiatives, and in schemes in specific countries, which are finding ways of bringing exciting books to children who can access screens more easily than printed text.
It is reasonable to expect, from the data above, that there are tens of millions of young African readers who are looking for good books they can absorb themselves in. What can these children turn to?
Children’s books with African main characters in African settings
Children love stories which feature characters with whom they can identify, who look like them, who wrestle with the problems and aspects of life that they deal with. They want characters with whom they can empathise. The lack of diversity in children’s literature, and its potential impacts for diverse societies, is a recognised problem in the UK and US. So it is reasonable to expect that young African readers will want books about African main characters and told in African settings. How many such books are there?
As Pule Lechesa, who I quoted above, went on to observe, ‘the great thing is that some African writers have managed to produce very fine work for African kids’ (quoted by Raphael). I have set out below a partial list of some of these writers who have written books for children from early readers to young adult.
From these authors, and many others, I am compiling a database of books written in English which feature African main characters in African settings and which are aimed at older children. The difficulty with this task is that it requires potentially arbitrary judgements as to what age groups books are suitable for. In this instance my database does not include works by Efua Sutherland, Remu Adedeji or Flora Nwapa (who wrote for younger children). It does not include the 126 books (!) by Naiwu Osahon as I could not determine what age groups he was writing for. It does not include the Fontana African Fiction series which was aimed at older readers. Nor does it include plays and graphic novels. (Please email me for a copy of the database, corrections and additions are welcome).
Looking for works of this sort published since 1960 I have found several hundred such titles. I suspect the list will grow to include many hundreds of books. But I do not think there will be thousands of such works. Africa Access lists less than 2600 books in its database which includes non-fiction titles and works for younger readers. And given the thousands of books that are published each year, and given the tens of millions of potential readers, there could be more. In the US for example over 3000 children’s and young adult books are published every year.
It is important to put this apparent gap in context. Many children will enjoy stories in their mother tongue, told by families and friends. There are amazing stories published in Swahili and Arabic. Novels written in English (or French and Portuguese), in languages of colonisation, will not be the only answer to children’s creative and imaginative needs.
But books in English for children will still be important, and could be more prominent. English provides access to some of the most powerful African literature. The lack of African main characters in African settings is likely to be a hindrance to younger readers. In preparing my book I sent a copy of the MS (which is based largely on a Tanzanian family in Tanzania) to children at a Tanzanian international school to get their feedback on it. They welcomed the work enthusiastically and some of their comments were particularly interesting. One comment was particularly poignant:
‘I want to read more because this is an African story and I have never read non-fiction African books before.’ (An 11 year old reader).
I believe that there is room for more African fiction for older children. It would be interesting to understand why so few books like this have been published. After all, the continent has has more than enough literary talent to produce many thousands of such books. Initial findings suggest that more such works were being produced in the 1980s and 1990s (through collections such as the Pacesetters series and Junior African Writers, see the graph below). These were clearly inspirational to young and teenage readers (see here, here and here). There was then a lull in production, but there have been many more titles being produced recently.
One of the reasons for this pattern has to be decision-making by publishers. The Pacesetters series, it appears, was a victim of structural adjustment and declining demand. But it also reflects the failures of publishers to recognise the market and the authors. Pacesetters was the brainchild of Agbo Areo an editor with Macmillan Nigeria, who had to write the first book in the series to convince his (UK) bosses that there was demand for these works (!) Marie Umeh describes how Flora Nwapa was marginalised by her publisher for being a ‘Third World’ author and had to establish her own publishing press to distribute her pioneering works.
Fortunately the strange void in African older children’s literature is filling up. Prizes such as The Burt Literary awards (now ceased), and the Children’s Africana Book Awards have raised the profile of these books and their authors. New genres like Africanfuturism are flourishing. But my analysis of the publishers involved suggests that their engagement is rather piecemeal. Outside of the nationally based presses the larger international houses support for this sort of literature is sporadic.
There could, and should, be an explosion of titles and writers working in this space. It is in the nature of writing that when an interesting topic, setting, scene or theme comes up then lots of other people also find ways of doing the same thing. Writing about one particular topic does not make it harder for others to do the same. On the contrary it makes it easier. H.G.Wells invented time travel – and whetted public appetite for more. Since Tolkein’s writings about dragons, wizards and dwarfs, there has been a healthy production of similar works. The Worst Witch made it easier, not harder, for J.K. Rowling to invent Hogwarts. So let authors create the space for each other by flooding the shelves with the most amazing African children’s fiction.
But if this does happen some care will be needed. And that is the second reason to write this blog. African authors will be writing the vast majority of these books, but they will not be writing all of them. Authors from many backgrounds will join in; I hope to be among them. But it is ground we will need to approach incredibly carefully.
Particularly for authors with European or North American backgrounds, writing about African characters and settings is replete with dangers of appropriation, mis-representation and white gaze. I have found that despite decades of learning about Tanzania, of working there as an anthropologist in remote rural areas, of living there as a family, despite learning Swahili (and speaking it at home), despite working on research projects with colleagues across the country for years – all that still does not ‘deal’ with my white gaze. It doesn’t work like that. White gaze doesn’t go away; we unlearn it very very slowly. Writing brings out deeply concealed prejudices because writing is such an intimate task. It lays us bare. We best to recognise this reality, the better to address it as it appears.
As the African writing communities and publishing companies wake up to the possibilities that abound in children’s literature, who knows what amazing stories, series and books will emerge. This genre could lead to a flourishing of rich and varied representations, of empathetic characters and settings that older children across the continent delight to immerse themselves in. The more books like this that come into existence, the more demand there will be for them – and the greater the number of new authors who will be forged by the enchantments of all they read.