Review of the Day: Too Small Tola by Atinuke, ill. Onyinye Iwu
If you are good at something, better than anyone else, it would be a crime not to use your talents for the greater good. Take Atinuke. I can remember the very first time I read one of her books. It was way back in 2010 when Kane/Miller Press released the very first Anna Hibiscus book in America. It was an early chapter book, one of the more maligned reading levels for kids. Unlike most children’s books, early chapter books take up a very small window in a young reader’s life. They last for two years, maybe three tops. Yet for all that, they’re the gateway to more advanced thinking and processing. Many chapter books believe that their purpose in life is to encourage children to keep reading. To do this, they compete to be as silly as possible. There are some books, though, that take a different tactic. When Atinuke, for example, writes an early chapter book, she keeps the fun but adds all kinds of layers as well. An Atinuke story doesn’t shy away from problems, but also taps into the child character’s very identifiable emotions, the matter-of-fact, day-to-day life they lead. Add in funny characters, funny situations, funny lines, and then wrap each story up perfectly by the end with a tiny message that’s there if you want it and not there if you don’t. Nobody does this balancing act better than Atinuke. And like the debut of her new series Too Small Tola, she has turned her books into small masterpieces. Read these books, ye other mighty authors, and despair.
“Tola lives in a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria.” How’s that for a beginning! Living in an apartment with her soccer obsessed older brother, her brainy older sister, and her tough as nails Grandmommy, Tola finds it hard to be the youngest. She’s smaller than everybody, but that doesn’t mean she has to take being called “Too Small Tola” lying down. In three Tola-sized adventures, we watch her hold her own. In the titular “Too Small Tola”, the first story, Tola and Grandmommy run an errand of sheer endurance, and reap the rewards. In “Small But Mighty” a bully discovers that women aren’t the easy targets he expected. Finally, in “Easter and Eid” Tola discovers she has something to offer a friend in need that truly saves the day.
When we go back and try to think of some of the first early chapter books published in the English language that feel contemporary today, one gal comes immediately to mind: Ramona. But Beverly Cleary’s specialty wasn’t just creating three-dimensional characters with a minimal number of words. Each chapter in a Ramona book is a perfect little short story. They may have elements that carry over, but if you pluck them out of the book, they stand on their own. Atinuke follows in that same tradition. Whether we’re talking about her Anna Hibiscus series or The Number One Car Spotter, she too knows how to tell a remarkably short story. This is not an easy task. If it were you’d see it done well more often. In this little book, we manage to get three little stories in a mere 89 pages that engage and enthrall. Moreover, when you end them, you start flipping the pages back and forth, convinced that there must be more story lurking in there somewhere. Or was that just me?
I’m not going to make a lot of friends with this next point but there is one thing that Atinuke excels at that doesn’t really come up in the Ramona stories. You can certainly argue that Klickitat Street is present and accounted for in the Beverly Cleary books, but it can’t hold a candle to the role that Lagos, Nigeria holds in Too Small Tola. You smell, feel, hear, touch, and occasionally taste Lagos. It is present. It is accounted for. It is unforgettable. And what really makes it remarkable is that these are stories about the people that the aforementioned Anna Hibiscus might look down on from her series. Atinuke is on the other side of the compound now, but she’s doing something really slick. Tola’s life is hard, no question, but you’re not reveling in her poverty. It may be the main antagonist of the series, but it isn’t crushing Tola or her family members. Each one of them (even her annoying brother Dapo) is handling their life in a different way. Each one has dreams and aspirations and some of them have plans to boot. Their lower income lives aren’t played up in an unrealistic way. But at the same time, there’s not magical solution to what ails them. Just smarts and guts.
One thing about this book confuses me, though. It concerns illustrator Onyinye Iwu. I don’t understand. If Ms. Iwu is this good, why have we not yet flooded the market with her books? I am happy to see on her website that a sequel to this book may yet make it to our shores someday (Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls) as she is the perfect illustrator for this series. I just want to see more of her work in the future. Nigerian herself, the publisher lucked out in tapping her for these titles. After all, Ms. Iwu knows exactly how to draw Easter outfits appropriate for people on a wide range of economic strata. She knows how to depict a woman with feet “spilling out over tiny-tiny shoes.” Grandmommy’s outfits, jerry cans, a rusty yellow danfo mimibus, it’s all here. But best of all is Tola herself. Look at her. Look at her face. You like Tola immensely, even before you’ve heard her say a word. Some authors must compensate for the inadequacies of their illustrators. This author is lifted by her artist. Words and picture move in tandem, complementing one another to perfection.
Atinuke keeps busy these days. At some point in the process people began to realize what a gift she was to children’s literature. Now she does lots of picture books of all kinds, and a bit of nonfiction too. Still, I get the feeling that early chapter books will always be her first love. I’m beginning to see other authors try to copy her style, all in vain. You’d have to practice for a very long while to duplicate the calculated degree of heart and the humor embedded in an Atinuke title. I know Atinuke can’t keep producing these books forever, but for as long as she can, let us hope that she does. Our kids are getting some of the best books in history right now. The least we can do is buy them.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley received from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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