Yesterday marked the paperback release of Africa Is My Home, by Monica Edinger, a dear friend and colleague. I always think of Monica as a fellow journeyer in the fantastic and sometimes treacherous, but always rewarding, territory that is Children’s Literature. Monica and I met online 20 years ago over the Child_lit listserv. Our mutual admiration for Lewis Carroll and his creations (Wonderland, puzzles, games…) made us fast virtual friends. Since 1997, I have worked with Monica on numerous projects both at Dalton where she teaches 4th grade and I am the middle school librarian and out of Dalton, co-teaching a Fairy Tales course online for Rutgers’ Youth Literature Certificate program and co-planning SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books for the past 7 years (with Jonathan Hunt and the good folks at SLJ,) among others.
I did not write a blog post for the book’s hardcover release two years ago, feeling self-conscious about how I probably could not really be objective in “reviewing” this book, being the first person who read Monica’s very first draft more than a decade ago. However, to celebrate the release of the paperback edition and to contemplate how this book fits within the recent discussion on the various ways Diversity in children’s books can be achieved, I am compelled to write about it even more — even if I cannot extract my knowledge of the creative process of the book from how I view the final product.
I know intimately what Monica went through in writing and re-writing this book: switching narrative voices, changing from nonfiction to fiction to nonfiction to fiction several times, “shopping” it around to various publishers and working with various potential editors. I also knew first hand how much she invested in making this (slim in size and yet hefty in subject matter) book: remembering what Sierra Leone was like when she spent two youthful years there, connecting and reconnecting with people from Sierra Leone to check and re-check facts, traveling to Connecticut (Amistad Museum) and Ohio (Oberlin) to immerse herself in primary materials about Sarah Margru, not to mention all the online researches she conducted through a decade. I also listened to her fret, and fret, and fret.
Ah, the fretting.
Monica Edinger is a German Jew. She is not of African descent. She is white. She lives in the 20th and 21st century. Sierra Leone is not exactly the same as Mendeland those many years ago. And this is NOT her own conjured-up story but the tale of a real person who lived and felt. It is also a story that has to work for a child reader when it’s told. So many details to consider…and to fret over.
How would the world receive this book when it finally got published? Would the book receive positive or negative reviews? Would the people whose story she chose to tell understand how much respect and care she had in the making of the book? Would the book and the story be dismissed? So many questions and potential pitfalls to imagine…and to fret over.
All that fretting is what I think needs to go into writing any book, but perhaps especially into writing “diverse” books where cultural authenticity and respect are extremely important.
I believe that Monica’s relentless drive of writing this book as authentic as she could manage came from several places: her sincere passion to tell this less-known story, her perfectionist’s need to be meticulous and accurate, her true fondness of researching and verifying facts, her strong dose of a healthy fear of not getting it right, and her tremendous respect and caring of the welfare of the people and culture of Sierra Leone. She did not write a book in the vein of what I have started thinking as a “third world tragedy story” told by a well-intentioned white person from a completely outsider viewpoint, often tinged with a sense of superiority and savior mentality. She wrote a story (with assistance from historical documents, her editor Sarah Ketchersid, and the talented illustrator Robert Byrd) that brings a historical tale to life with a high degree of authenticity and no outsider judgment. It enriches and will continue to enrich the reading and cultural experiences of young readers.
I’m so glad that Africa is My Home has received much praise and accolades: the result of the incessant fretting from all parties involved.
In the next post, I will discuss a particular review of Africa is My Home and when it first hit the market and ponder over similar questions of what Malinda Lo wrote on her blog post about reviewers’ perceptions when it comes to diversity topics in children’s and YA books.