Guest Post: Karen Leggett Salutes the Children’s Africana Book Awards

By Karen Leggett

Brenda Randolph, founder and director of Africa Access, was raised in the segregated schools and libraries of Richmond, Virginia.

“I was an avid reader, but I never encountered crude racism in children’s books,” she said. “I remember being irritated by some comments, but I never came upon viciously racist sentiments or characters. I think my African American librarians protected me by careful book selection.”

Randolph’s awareness jumped dramatically a few years after college. An African American mother strongly objected to The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (by Hugh Lofting, J.B. Lippincott, 1922) at an elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts where Randolph had recently been hired.

“Lofting’s book was full of the crudest racism I had ever encountered,” she said. “As a result of this incident, I read every book in the library that focused on Africa. I also read books about African Americans, Native Americans, Indigenous Australians and other people of color. I quickly discovered deep racism and ethnocentrism in many books, including award winners.”  
The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle was withdrawn for reevaluation from the Brookline school and Randolph was transformed into an activist librarian. She has devoted her career to making sure children, librarians and teachers have access to high quality books about African countries and people.

After graduate school in African Studies at Howard University, Randolph founded Africa Access to help schools and libraries build quality collections on Africa. 

Brenda Randolph

In the early 1990s, Africa Access launched Africa Access Review, a free online database, of scholarly reviews of K-12 books on Africa.

Today the Africa Access database has over 1500 annotations and reviews of children’s and young adult books.

 Africa Access also provides online bibliographies of recommended picture books, chapter books, award winners and new adult books – “accurate, balanced books that can change and expand what we know, think and feel about Africa.”

Additionally, one can also find links to lessons and other resources for teaching and learning about Africa on the Africa Access website.

In 1991, Africa Access in collaboration with the African Studies Association Outreach Council created the Children’s Africana Book Awards (CABA) to recognize authors and illustrators of outstanding books on Africa for young people. 

The first award was presented in 1992 to David Anderson and illustrator Kathleen Wilson for The Origins of Life on Earth, A Yoruba Creation Story (Sights Production, 1991). An image from that book became the seal for CABA. 
 African studies and children’s literature scholars make up the selection committee for CABA.

The judges read 30 to 40 books a year, nominated by publishers and copyrighted in the year preceding the awards ceremony.

Eligible books must be available in English in the United States. Books with content primarily about African Americans and other parts of the African diaspora are not eligible. The awards are presented in two categories: Young Children and Older Readers.

The CABA competition is open to authors and illustrators of all ethnic backgrounds.

The selection juries (which always include Africans and African Americans) evaluate books on the basis of accuracy, balance, and authenticity.

“Research is key,” Randolph said. “CABA juries are looking for books that reflect in-depth knowledge of places and people in Africa.”

The number of awards varies each year depending on the quality of what has been published. In 2015, there was only one winner. The following year there were four winners. This year there are seven.

Award judges ask the same questions teachers or librarians should ask when reviewing titles.

  • Do stories and history reflect African agency?
  • Are the details of holidays, festivals and culture presented respectfully, or are they “quaint” and “exoticized?”
  • Are country distinctions recognized? “Africa is not a country!” Randolph insists, frustrated that authors often give country-specific titles to their books, only to have publishers change to generic “Africa” for marketing purposes.
  • Does the book avoid offensive, inaccurate or biased terms, e.g. using house rather than “hut,” ethnic group rather than “tribe.”
  • Are the illustrations balanced and varied reflecting the typical rather than the rare (i.e. showing animals that Africans actually see birds, dogs, goats rather than lions and elephants)?
  • Are problems (e.g. poverty and war) presented in global and historical contexts?

“CABA juries particularly appreciate books set in urban areas,” Randolph said. “By 2025, more than half the population of Africa will be urban. More books should reflect this fact.”

“Instead of recycling colonial and exotic images of Africa,” Randolph suggested “sharing books that emphasize typical social groups (farmers and office workers) and typical activities (soccer and shopping).

“Good choices are My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa Mollel, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Clarion, 1999) which features a boy saving money to buy a bike and Desmond and the Very Mean Word: A Story of Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams and illustrated by A.G. Ford, (Candlewick, 2013) which promotes forgiveness.

“We are also eager to evaluate more books from Africa publishers. The challenge is making sure the books are available for purchase in the U.S. Schools and libraries need to be able to purchase these titles with ease. African Books Collective — an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet — is an important partner in this regard.”

This year CABA is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a collection of more than 90 award-winning books that “do a much better job of representing Africa’s diversity,” said Randolph.

This year’s CABA 2017 winners provide choices for kindergarteners through young adults, with two best books for young readers.

Gizo-Gizo! A Tale from the Zongo Lagoon by Emily Williamson (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2016) is a folktale with a modern setting that tackles the universal problem of water pollution.

Graduate student Emily Williamson worked with local teachers in Cape Coast, Ghana, to teach students about local water and environmental concerns. The book is the result of their dialogue, performances, art and writing exercises. 

The Storyteller by Evan Turk (Simon & Schuster, 2016) tells about a little boy who discovers the
power of storytelling in Morocco. 
Best Book for Older Readers, Amagama Enkululeko! Words for Freedom: Writing Life Under Apartheid (Cover2Cover Books, 2016) is an anthology of both famous and forgotten writers on the history of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.

Honor books include Aluta by Adwoa Badoe (Groundwood, 2016), Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan (Putnam, 2016) and The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye by Manu Herbstein (Manu Herbstein, 2016) and one notable title, The World Beneath by Janice Warman (Candlewick, 2016).

The 25th anniversary CABA celebration includes an award dinner Nov. 3 in Washington, D.C., that brings together new winners with almost a dozen past winners and honors CABA founder, Brenda Randolph.

The following day, a free family CABA Book Festival will take place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Events include book signings, art activities, storytelling and food.

Cynsations Notes

Karen Leggett is a journalist who spent many years as a news broadcaster in Washington, D.C., reviewing children’s books before writing them.

She is the author of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books, illustrated by Susan L. Routh (Dial, 2012) which won a CABA award in 2013 and Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words, illustrated by L.C. Wheatley (StarWalk Kids Media, 2014).

Karen has led Skype sessions between American and Egyptian children and presented workshops for teachers and librarians on using picture books to build global awareness. She is a former president of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C.