This sweet middle grades book about two girls in Ghana is a friendship story and a rags to riches gem. The 336 pages immerse you in a rich and vibrant culture and share a story that while at times simplistic, really pulls you in and makes the over the top happy ending, tearful and joyful. I read the entire book in one setting and loved that there was no glossary, or white pandering; the story works in the explanations and details for those unfamiliar with West African cultures to share a story about classism, friendship, growing up, and challenging stereotypes. I loved while so much was new to me and culture specific, so much, at the same time, was universal and relatable to all. The story is OWN voice, the main character is a wealthy girl, but the friend is a poor Muslim one. I am not sure where the religious representation ended and the cultural practices started, but the book does not criticize any culture or traditions, it only criticizes the mindset that one is superior to another because of where they are from. I also don’t know that the Muslim character will mirror global Muslim experiences, but having the character identify as Muslim and be such a wise and determined friend, makes her a great character to cheer on and love no matter the reader’s background. This would be a great book to teach, to shelve, to read aloud, and to discuss.
Fourteen year old Abena is spending her summer with her aunt in Makola market while her mother has traveled to London to give birth. Abena’s father is a physician and her friends are part of the wealthy and privileged class that attends American schools, vacations abroad, lives in mansions with servants, and have the latest phones. In a bit of a culture shock spending the weekdays with her aunt at the bustling market, Abena starts to see her country and its people in a different light. One day while getting out of her aunt’s car she makes eye contact with a kayayoo, a porter who carries customers purchases on their head. She snaps a picture of the girl who appears about her age wearing an orange scarf, as she secretly is working on a journalism competition, and something about the girl intrigues her. The two smile and carry on. Later when they meet again they realize they do not share any common languages, they both speak a number of dialects and languages, yet somehow the girls connect. Day after day they sneak away to have lunch together and learn about one another as they learn each other’s language, culture, history, and dreams. Faiza opens Abena’s eyes to so much about Ghana that she had never known existed and Abena teaches Faiza English, science, shows her the internet and gives her the foundation for how to read and write. Abena’s aunty does not approve of their friendship: stereotypes and assumptions about poor Muslims from the North prevent her from treating Faiza as an equal. Yet, she doesn’t forbid the friendship either. As the girls’ friendship grows, summer vacation comes to an end and goodbyes will have to be made. Things get expediated though, in a climax of misunderstandings, regrets, and friendships separated by class and religion.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that right before Abena sneaks Faiza on to the laptop to Google dinosaurs, and the solar system, and cities in Ghana and maps, I was Googling images of geles, okro and Makola market, maps to see where Hausa and Dagomba regions are, and enjoying learning about people because it is so enriching whether fictional or in real life.
I love that there isn’t judgement by either girl on trying to understand why children are given to aunts to raise or why women are forced to marry. It shows so much without othering any facet of sub culture within Ghana or anywhere for that matter. Abena’s cousins aren’t put down for being wealthy, or Faiza for being poor. Even the Haji looking for a fourth wife is not favorable because he is old and has brown stained teeth, not because there is judgement upon him having more than one wife or the family wanting their daughter to marry him.
I often remark that I like middle grade books that don’t tie everything up in a neat and tidy bow, but this book went the other extreme and tied everything up far in to the future, that I ended up loving the extreme nature of it as the tears of joy dripped off my cheeks. If you are going to do it, do it for a reason, and this book did it to great effect.
Faiza is Muslim she wears hijab and stops Abena from taking it off at one point, but then at the end she has braids hanging out from underneath her scarf. There are crushes and hugging between Faiza and males and an implied potential romantic relationship between Faiza and a non Muslim male that is never given pause. A character goes for hajj, it mentions a space that Faiza uses for prayer, and it mentions Faiza’s Muslim family members getting drunk. Nothing more than these details are given about being Muslim, other than her being labeled as a Muslim and identifying as one.
Theft, crushes, lying, classism, racism, running away, drinking beer, getting drunk, forced marriage.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think that the book would lend itself very easy toward discussion and appreciating a people and culture that for many in the west would be new and unfamiliar. I think outside research to supplement would be a natural extension and that the characters, their voices, their lives, and experiences, will stay with readers of all ages as we can rest easy knowing that they got their happy endings.