After the publication of Nancy Schmidt’s two volume annotated bibliography on African children’s literature in the 1970s and her Children’s Fiction About Africa in English in 1981, African children’s literature remained a sadly neglected area of critical enquiry in the United States for over a decade. Only a few dedicated Africanist scholars and publications, notably the Journal of African Children’s and Youth Literature, edited by Osayimwense Osa, continued to publish articles on the subject. Thanks to their efforts, the last three years mark a steadily growing interest in the field of African children’s literature with the publication of three books: Osa’s latest book, African Children’s and Youth Literature, Khorana’s annotated bibliography, Africa in Literature for Children and Young Adults, which discusses books published from 1873 to 1994, and African Images in Juvenile Literature by Yulisa Amadu Maddy and Donnarae MacCann, which analyzes neocolonialist tendencies in children’s books set in Africa.
The title of Osa’s book is misleading: while it implies a balanced and comprehensive discussion of all genres for children and young adults throughout Africa, it concentrates only on Nigerian fiction for young adults. Of the seventeen novels discussed in detail (with several others mentioned in passing), all are from Nigeria except two from Zimbabwe and one from Kenya. Osa does not discuss the numerous collections of folktales; he dismisses drama, biography/autobiography, mysteries and adventures, and school stories in just a few paragraphs; and he does not mention the recent contributions of Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to picture-book illustration and multilingual publications. Osa has consciously limited his discussion to a select body of literature which he declares is “neither exhaustively complete nor absolutely definitive” (136). While he acknowledges the many aspects and genres of African children’s literature, he says they are “too ephemeral to warrant the kind of in-depth analysis I have given the major youth novels discussed here” (136). Only major writers and their works are deemed worthy of discussion, ignoring the numerous fiction writers such as Asenath Bole Odaga, ‘Remi Adedeji, Meja Mwangi, Teresa E. Meniru, Ben Okri, Kola Onadipe, Ifeoma Okoye, Amos Tutuola, Henry R. ole Kulet, Juma Bustani, Bernard Chahilu, and many others who have broadened the scope of African children’s and young adult literature by introducing themes and approaches that are relevant to postcolonial times. [End Page 136]
Within these limited parameters, Osa’s study infuses a cultural component to a thematic analysis of Nigerian fiction for youth, rather than focusing on theoretical or critical evaluation. Individual chapters focus on a specific topic relevant to young adults such as romance and marriage, exploitation and corruption in government, disillusionment with authority figures, materialism, collapse of moral values, and war and involvement of youth in revolutionary movements. (Noticeably absent is a discussion of novels about adolescence and identity formation such as Musa Nagenda’s Dogs of Fear, Meja Mwangi’s Jimi the Dog and Kill Me Quick, and Ben Okri’s Flowers and Shadows.) Each chapter introduces the theme, provides detailed plot summaries of novels that advance the theme, and situates each theme within the context of its cultural, socioeconomic, historical, and political milieu. Biographical information on the author’s intentions, experiences, and attitudes emphasize that young adult fiction is a response to postcolonial conditions.
Osa’s approach is unique in that it decolonizes the cultural misrepresentation of Africa by shattering the stereotypes of exotic rituals and ceremonies and distortions of historical and political events. He painstakingly explains beliefs, customs, rituals, and proverbs, so that non-African readers can become acquainted with the conditions and worldview that gave rise to each novel. His analyses emphasize integral cultural details—such as hair plaiting and its place in society, bride price customs, when and how a marriage can be annulled, palm-wine tapping—and links them to the ultimate meaning they hold for the characters and fictional events. The chapter on Naira Power, for instance, points out that due to Western influence thievery and embezzlement have become...