Created in the twilight of the British Empire, the Commonwealth is a means of co-operation between its fifty-four member countries. It’s not possible to represent them all equally in a short list, especially as few have an extensive children’s publishing industry. Here is a selection of picture books, traditional stories, poetry and fiction, some with classic status and some very new, to start readers off on journeys of exploration where indigenous cultures are respected and valued.
A River of Stories
Alice Curry (compiler), Commonwealth Education Trust, volume 1 Water, illus. Jan Pieńkowski, 978-0992991074, volume 2 Earth, illus. Poonam Mistry, 978-0992991005, volume 3 Air, illus. Julie Flett, 978-0992991012, volume 4 Fire, illus. Emma Butler, 978-0992991029, £12.99 each pbk
Each of these four volumes includes a cornucopia of poems and stories from the fifty-four countries that make up the Commonwealth. The arrangement is thematic, ranging around different aspects of the four elements. Travel across the exquisitely designed and illustrated pages and swing After the Rain (a poem from Pakistan), find out Why People Have to Die (a tale from Vanuatu), smell the scent of Chrysanthemums (a poem from Singapore), tremble before The Ghostly Wife (a tale from Bangladesh), call out an Invocation to the Rainbow (a chant from Cameroon) and become immersed in seas of story.
A Caribbean Dozen
This rich collection is comprised of work from thirteen poets born in the islands and countries of the Caribbean. Each poet shares a childhood experience with the reader as an introduction to their poems and there are biographical notes on each of them. Some names may be more familiar such as James Berry, Valerie Bloom and the editors themselves and reading this collection will entice readers into seeking out more of the poetry written by all of the contributors. The original edition with Cathie Felstead’s illustrations in glorious colour is OP but this affordable edition means that more copies can be bought!
Trickster Coyote hears that the earth-goddesses are planning a conference to discuss the way humans are mistreating the planet. Only female creatures are allowed so Coyote dons his wife’s blue dress and attends in disguise, listening to what the earth-goddesses from all around the world are saying and offering a suggestion of a soundbite that could unite. Returning home, he finds that his wife had the same idea and has just returned from the males-only gathering of earth-gods. Most of Lantana’s books combine the talents of an author and an illustrator from different countries and cultures – here they are John Agard from Guyana and Piet Grobler from South Africa.
Even When Your Voice Shakes
This YA novel from Ghana is published in a recent initiative bringing contemporary African literature for young people to a wider audience. Readers will warm to narrator Amerley, keeping her family together in a run-down neighbourhood of Accra. An offer of employment from a rich distant relative seems to offer a way out of poverty and the possibility of fulfilling her dream to attend college but Amerley is exploited by her employer and raped by her aunt’s stepson. How she eventually finds the strength and courage from within and from friends to overcome this is an inspiration to those looking to discover their own voice.
To Market! To Market!
In this eye-catching unusually shaped picture book, a small Indian girl explores her vibrant local market deciding what to buy with the money her mother has given her. She tries on various identities as she does so and finds that this is the real fun rather than actually purchasing anything. The rhythms of the rhyming text are emphasised by imaginative typography. Anushka Ravishankar is known for the humorous wordplay of her verse. Several of her books are published by Tara, noted for their innovative bookmaking incorporating illustrative styles from across India.
A picture book based on the true story of a child in India carrying the chillies she earned harvesting to her home village far away. Like other migrant workers she had to return on foot when a lockdown was suddenly imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Jamlo’s journey is interspersed with glimpses of the lives of other Indian children, for example attending a school lesson via Zoom. A significant story simply told with strong themes about injustice, the importance of sharing resources more equally and the impact on children in particular.
The Marrow Thieves
A Canadian YA novel by a Métis author nominated to the IBBY Honour List 2020, set in the near future when climate change has wreaked destruction. ‘Recruiters’ hunt the indigenous people of North America, taking them to schools to harvest their bone marrow, the source of the ability to dream only retained by Native peoples. Groups from a variety of tribal nations are in hiding or on the run. The presence of residential schools refers back to when children sent to these were deprived of their language and culture. Rebecca Thomas’s picture book I’m Finding My Talk, illustrated by Pauline Young (Nimbus Publishing, 978-1771088114) is a powerful evocation of this.
This powerful allegory depicting the devastating effects of colonialism was one of the earliest picture books illustrated by internationally award-winning Australian Shaun Tan and demonstrates his surreal style. John Marsden is author of novels for young people, notably the series starting with Tomorrow, When the War Began. The language used here is deceptively simple, evoking a strong response as the reader comes to a gradual realisation of the situation and the implications. The Australian setting becomes apparent near the end through the vocabulary ‘billabong’ and ‘gum trees’ but the message is universal and the circumstances could apply to a number of places, past and present.
This YA novel from Australia was shortlisted for the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal and gives voice to two young people, Alice and Manny, damaged by circumstances not of their making and their developing relationship. Alice’s speech is slurred but her writing is lyrical and includes poems that ‘mean whatever you want them to’. Manny was a child soldier who saw his family die in war torn Sierra Leone. A brave and beautiful book in terms of themes and linguistic expression. Glenda Millard is also the author of the heartwarming Kingdom of Silk series for a younger age group.
Snake and Lizard
The author of these stories featuring an unlikely friendship is one of the most loved and prolific authors in New Zealand (many young readers and their teachers are familiar with her character Mrs Wishy-Washy!) and the illustrator is also one of their most highly regarded. This classic collection of humorous tales comes from the publisher of ‘curiously good books’ both from New Zealand and in translation.
Ann Lazim was Librarian at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education for 29 years. Since ‘retirement’ she remains involved in several children’s books organisations including IBBY.