Ajani and his friends (all boys) are crazy about football in their shanty South African township where water must still be collected from the well. His prize for being the best reader in class is a new Federation-size football. Stored in a battered red bucket, Ajani’s ‘brilliant’ black and white leather ball replaces a dirty old blue plastic one. But the dusty streets between the shacks are not safe and must be checked. ‘Left is clear./ Right is clear’ is a vital refrain for Ajani, Jamal, Magubani, Hassan and Badu. With older bullies as their chief danger, they draw straws for who must stand guard on top of a roof so the others can play and not worry. ‘I follow the ball to the end of the alley;/ I follow the ball to the end of the world.’ When their game is interrupted by three older boys on rickety pedal bikes, the prize ball is hastily hidden under the red bucket. The menacing big boys seize the old blue ball and the friends pretend to cry. The bullies speed away laughing. Ajani and his friends feel like World Cup victors as they resume their game with their beautiful leather ball.
Javaherbin tells Ajani’s story in vividly rhythmic language in this large format picture book, ending with a powerful message: ‘When we play together,/ we are unbeatable.’ In an Author’s Note, she points to the universal nature of football ‘in the face of poverty, bully rulers and unsafe alleys’. The children in her story play to stay connected as children, to stay human. ‘But mostly, they play to play.’ It’s an uplifting message endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and my only quibble is that the author could have done a little more research into South African names. In A G Ford’s oil-painted illustrations, the ball, often foregrounded and huge, could almost be a character in its own right, alongside his realistic, expressive focus on the boys. Ford contrasts the gritty browns of the township with a startlingly blue sky. However, there’s a static uniformity in his depiction of sealed-up dwellings. No details like pumpkins on roofs or improvised wires and aerials! The suggestion is more of a run-down ghost town than a real place where a whole community breathes through ingenuity and resilience. I miss that background vitality in this stylised rendering. However our attention is focused on the young footballers who are certainly this story’s survivors.