Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo

I’ve recently become more interested than usual in African and African-Canadian literature thanks to bloggers like Amy, Kinna, and Nana, and writers such as  Zetta Elliott, and so I was delighted when the Toronto-based Second Story Press sent me Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo for review. This picture book tells us about a seven-year-old African boy Maiko, who, upon losing his parents,  moves from his village to live with his aunt and uncle in a North American city. Everything is  terrifyingly unfamiliar–the green landscape, the cool weather, the school, festivals like Halloween–and a lonely Maiko misses his life back home with quiet desperation. His longing for his village crystallizes around his memories of a 2,000-year old baobab tree in whose shade he used to play.

Maiko finds a new companion in a little spruce exactly his own age that grows in his uncle’s front yard.  He shares his secrets with the tree, and in turn, listens to its song. But the tree has taken root too close to the house’s foundation, and must be removed.  Can the young tree find a new home, or it is destined to be chopped down?

There is a tragic dearth of Canadian picture books featuring PoC characters in meaningful roles, and I was truly happy to share this book with my son. And NOT just for educational purposes (which, as we all know, is adult-ese for boring). While the parallels between Maiko and the spruce are laid out explicitly for the book’s young audience, the narrative leaves plenty of scope for a child’s imagination, and the full-page illustrations by Qin Leng are drenched in color, vividly conveying the difference between Maiko’s village and his new home. This gentle, deeply-felt book provides a lovely teachable moment about belonging and alienation, not to mention diversity, for little ones.

If there’s one thing I found missing, it’s a mention of Maiko’s home country.  We know it’s in a part of Africa where baobabs grow and where ugali is eaten, and there are other subtle indicators, but they weren’t enough for me (and certainly not for the average Canadian child) to identify where Maiko is from.  I do understand that the author has deliberately left the specific locations un-named–an African village, a North American city–but it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity for getting kids to learn about Africa (not a country but a continent…) I looked up the book on Canadian Bookshelf and found that the publicity material mentions that Maiko’s from Tanzania; why not include that on the book’s jacket, I wonder?

And I also looked up Calgary-based Chery Foggo, whose fascinating body of work includes a theatrical adaptation of Things Fall Apart, research on Alberta’s Black Pioneers, and two YA novels, both of which I’ll be searching out after I post this review.

(Note: Canadian Bookshelf has the illustrator’s name wrong; it is indeed Qin Leng.)

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20 responses to “Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo

  1. Having lived in Tanzania for 3 years, I will have to track down a copy of this book! With Baobab trees and ugali, it is probably set in central Tanzania (I’m not a fan of ugali – where I lived, cooking bananas were the staple food – much yummier!).
    One of my issues that you touched on briefly is when books and articles and talks etc refer to “Africa” as if it is a unified place. There is a lot of difference between Egypt and Tanzania and Nigeria and South Africa. Even within Tanzania, there are 76 tribes, each with their own language and customs and culture. I agree with you that it would be nice if the book were a bit more specific.
    Thanks for the review – I’ll post one on my blog once I’ve had a chance to read this book.

    • What a pleasing co-incidence! Maybe you could ask Second Story to send you a review copy? And thanks for the info. about Tanzania. I could not agree more–it is tremendously irritating when books refer to a continent, or sub-continent as a unified place. I wish writers would take the trouble to do the research.

  2. I would have pointed a wrong country. lol. I was thinking more of West instead of East Africa.

  3. This sounds really great, I wouldn’t have guessed the country either. At all! Seems odd to leave it off. I’m glad you got this copy! I’ll be watching what you find to send on to my sister :) Also, Cheryl Foggo sounds pretty cool!

    • I’m doing a reading log for my son for school, and I’m planning to fill it with multicultural picture books, so if you need suggestions, just ask! And I hope you’re having fun in Botswana!

  4. Thank you all for your comments about my book Dear Baobab. Niranjana, I love your blog and plan to look for your work. If you’re set up for giveaways I’d be happy to do one for Baobab. Just want you all to know, the decision to remove specific references both to Maiko’s old home and his new home were editorial ones – not my choice!

    • Thanks for commenting, and for the kind words about my blog, Cheryl! Interesting that the editors decided to make it non-specific. My 4-yr-old loves pointing to countries on the globe and telling me about all the people he knows (fictional and real) connected to different places, and he has Tanzania pegged to Maiko now :)
      I’ll email you about a giveaway.

      • Just as a follow-up…I had an interesting encounter on the weekend with an ESL teacher who has read Dear Baobab and plans to use it in her classroom. She told me she was pleased that neither the city/country of Maiko’s origin nor of his resettlement were named in the story, because she has students from 6 African nations in her class and believes they will all connect with Maiko in a way they would not do if Tanzania had been named in the text. Interesting perspective – gave me some insight into why publishers prefer to keep locations general.
        Cheryl

      • Glad to hear your book is being used in ESL classrooms!
        And yes, I guess the non-specificity would indeed broaden the appeal. But I’m also a bit sad about the circumstance that necessitates such non-specificity from publishers: that kids don’t have much access to country-specific books about Africa. A teacher wouldn’t have an issue about a book set in Germany not representing other European countries, because s/he’d find plenty of books set in Italy or Holland or wherever. In the ideal world, the kids from those 6 countries would be able to find books set in each of their countries…

  5. Wonderful recommendation. I’ve been looking for books for my young neices and I think this will be great. It’s also nice to see children’s fiction with young brown faces and a boy at that.

    Thanks for sharing this treasure.

  6. Hi Nina. Nice to see this review, and your thoughtful commentary. Thanks also for the note about the illustrator. We’ll get it fixed asap. -Kerry

  7. Thanks Kerry! Canadian Bookshelf is my new happy place :)

  8. The book seems like a nice read. I’d love to read something like this.

    A tree is such a powerful metaphor for displacement, strengthened further by the fact that it’s rooted while the protagonist isn’t or finding his footing, or his roots. There’s something very charming about such stories.

    I feel likewise. They should’ve included the name of the country, and I hope its omission is not out of some misplaced sense of political correctness.

    • Yes, and the baobab is visually so arresting as well! Another excellent picture book that uses the tree as a metaphor is Uma Krishnaswami’s Out of the Way, where a tree grows in the middle of a village path. A really lovely story.

  9. Your comments about the dearth of country-specific books set in African nations are bang-on. I meant to mention in response to your earlier post that it sounds like you have a very cool 4 year old living in your house!

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  11. This is story is so sweet. I hope the author does more books featuring Maiko and his same age tree.

    You have until Oct 15 nominate this for the Cybils, and I hope you do, Dear Baobab is too good not to share.