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.)