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