Review of the Day: The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo
Windows, mirrors, and sliding doors. Dr. Rudine Sims came up with that idea of what books for young people should be. You should have books that show you other lives, books, that reflect your own life, and books that help you cross over from your life into a different one. Here in America so much of that phrase has focused primarily on race. This makes a lot of sense, considering our history. What’s interesting to me, though, is how rarely it’s applied to world literature. By and large our kids aren’t really encouraged all that often to read books written by people in other countries. Windows are great, but folks tend to prefer that it look out at their own backyard. To be fair, due to the state of children’s book publishing today, even finding such books can be difficult. The biggest publishers tend to avoid translations for any number of reasons. Also, when you look at books set in different African nations, they’re almost always written by Americans. We’ve got Atinuke, sure, but one Atinuke does not a vast continent make. Maybe that’s why I started reading The Kaya Girl. Or maybe it was fact that editor Susan Rich was selling it as well as she was. Maybe it was the starred review from Kirkus that convinced me, or perhaps the fact that not only was there an audiobook version available but that the reader (Ekua Ekeme) was one of the best I’ve heard in a while. To be fair, I’m just as reluctant as anyone else to try something new, but when you’ve got a title this interesting that grabs you with that magnificent cover and then hooks you from the first sentence onward, I mean . . . what else can one do? Because if you want a novel for kids that’s a pure pleasure on the page to read, The Kaya Girl has your number.
From the moment Abena sees her, she knows that Faiza is different. Sure she’s just a girl from the northern part of Ghana, hiring herself out at the Makola Market to carry the goods of the shoppers there. But Faiza’s a fascinating person, something that Abena discovers the more she gets to know her. From Faiza she learns about a part of the world she’s never known anything about. From Abena, Faiza’s eyes are opened to a world she would never otherwise encounter. And when tragedy strikes and the two are separated, neither has any idea what surprises the future might hold.
Great writing comes down to how well a mishmash of different elements work together. Are you transported somewhere else? Do you fall in love with the characters? Are they believable? Is the storytelling compelling? Now I make it my business to listen to the e-audiobooks of a lot of different middle grade novels in a given year. I have found, however, that in cases where the plot is dark and depressing, even if it’s just for a couple chapters, I will have to fight a rising reluctance to put those earbuds back in. I also like to know next to nothing when I delve into a book, so I came to The Kaya Girl not clear if this was going to be a depressing title, a sweet one, or a mix of both. I needn’t have worried. We talk a lot about the prevalence of Black trauma in the literature we hand to our children. Sometimes it seems a kid can’t pick up a book with Black characters in it without being bombarded continually with stories of enslavement, Jim Crow, segregation, police brutality, and more. Not that we don’t need those stories. We just need some Black joy in there as well. What I found with The Kaya Girl was a storyline that has hardship and inequity, but for the most part is happy to give you characters living interesting lives, telling compelling stories, goofing around, and generally having a great time. If you’ve ever liked characters in a book but wished that they had more time to just be kids having fun, this is the book for you.
Knowing next to nothing about Ghana (apart from what I learned from Atinuke’s Africa, Amazing Africa I walked into this story a blank slate. Author Mamle Wolo is Ghanaian-German, studied all around the world, and lives in Accra, Ghana where a lot of this story is set. Now this book was originally published in a slightly different version in Ghana in 2012 under the name The Kaya-Girl. What we’re reading here in the States is an adaptation of that original. Adapted, one must assume, to explain to Yanks like myself some pretty basic stuff. Essentially, Ms. Wolo is in a position where she has to tell a story and teach at the same time, allowing the educational components to flow naturally into the narration. This is no easy task. The desire to info-dump must have been perpetual (at least in the amended version). It is a credit then to the author (and her editor) that these details are worked so seamlessly into the storytelling. And having Abena, a rich privileged girl, is a perfect way of introducing a lot of information. Thanks to her education she’s the perfect American reader stand-in. Mind you, folks might find her complete lack of prejudice a bit unbelievable, but I think Ms. Wolo couches it nicely enough.
Speaking of Abena, let’s just stop of a moment and look at the moment that you, the reader, fall in love with her. Getting your readers to identify with your main characters is a challenge children’s authors often face. For me, Abena doesn’t come fully to life until she leaps out of her aunt’s car in the middle of a downpour to wipe the windows free of condensation on the outside. For the character of Faiza, it’s when she starts crooning a pop song word for word. Other characters have their depths as well, and even the unpleasant ones get a little nuance. Still, the bulk of the story rests on these two girls’ shoulders. This is understandable but because the narration is almost entirely from Abena’s point of view, there’s a danger of Faiza getting tokenized. She’s almost too good to be true, but there’s something about the way that the author writes her and the stories she tells that works. You understand Faiza the way Abena does. It makes that ending all the more satisfying. I’d also argue that Mamle Wolo also lets her girls be silly girls. They talk about cute boys and dress up ridiculously and get into trouble and generally have fun. Never underestimate the power of fun.
I’ll be honest and say that I sort of fell in love with this book from the moment I saw its American cover. Not to cast aspersions on the other book jackets out there in the world, but this cover conceived and created by artist Bright Ackwerh is worth all of them combined. This is partly because it is an embodiment of the very first line of the book: “Orange headscarf, kohl-lined eyes, high-up cheeks, bright white teeth.” But there are other elements of interest to it as well. The Faiza I see here is absolutely right on the edge between childhood and teenagerhood. She has the lines etched vertically in the middle of each of her cheeks. But almost more than all of this, you can feel her personality. This is someone you want to know. Now, admittedly, a co-worker of mine who had not yet read the book saw the cover and said it felt sad to him. I suspect that if you were not looking at it carefully you might mistake the lines on her cheeks for tears. But her eyes. How can you deny that her eyes are smiling? No, I’ll say it once and for all. This is my favorite cover of the year. No contest.
For all that I love (and I truly do love) this book, there is one aspect of it that left me more than a little baffled. To explain it, I’m going to have to cite a truly terrible Disney movie, so bear with me here. In the animated film Pocahontas (told ya) the filmmakers had a fairly big problem. They wanted to set up some kind of change of heart for their blond English dude (oh god, was he actually voiced by Mel Gibson?) Captain John Smith. To do that, he’d have to have a conversation with the star of the film. The problem, obviously, was language. In the past folks from different countries would talk together in movies and no one blinked an eye. Pocahontas decided that wasn’t good enough so it created a magic tree that would give them the ability to speak to one another. I don’t like to think about the magic tree option or when creators just sort of fall back on it, but The Kaya Girl definitely utilizes some magic tree tricks of its own. At the start of the story the two girls can barely understand one another. The title does mention repeatedly that “suddenly language did not seem important.” But for the sake of the storytelling, the two have to engage in long conversations and fast. A language barrier, as it happens, would completely upend the storyline if it turned into a whole thing, so Wolo just sort of conveniently forgets to make it a problem. Abena says stuff like, “Don’t ask me how, but she was just so easy to talk to.” Not many aspects of the book demand that you suspend your disbelief. I don’t mind anyway. Beats a magic tree anyway.
When I recommend you a book, I like to compare it to other titles that are similar. I’m trying to do that with The Kaya Girl right now, but I’m finding it a bit hard. At its core, this is a story about finding and befriending your best friend. It’s such a familiar tale, but I’m having a hard time thinking of another book that does it as well as this one does. It’s not like intense friendships don’t exist elsewhere. It’s just that after reading this book the rest sort of fade. I guess if I leave you with any impression of this story, I hope it’s an understanding that this book is enormously fun to read. That you’ll get sucked in pretty much from the first page. That it might even encourage a great swath of kinds to check out Ghana, learn more about it, or even someday visit it themselves. From the food to the clothing, the weather to the history, this is a book worth discovering and adoring. Go on. Read it. You’ll feel lucky that you had.
On shelves now.
Source: Audiobook borrowed from Overdrive
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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