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Thursday, 9 March 2017

Handa's Suprise

Author and Illustrator: Eileen Browne
Publisher: Walker Books, 1994

This is a sweet, very simple story, set in south-west Kenya. It features a little girl called Handa (as the postscript notes, from the Luo tribe in Kenya). Handa goes off to see her friend Akeyo, packing seven types of fruit into a basket as a surprise for her friend. Handa walks purposefully to Akeyo's village, the fruit in the basket balanced on her head. As she walks she thinks about which fruit her friend might choose to eat first. Unbeknown to Handa, a monkey slips down from a near tree and takes the banana from her basket. Handa wonders whether Akeyo would like the 'sweet-smelling guava', just as an ostrich sweeps in to take the guava. A zebra takes the 'round juicy orange', an elephant the 'ripe red mango', a giraffe the 'spiky-leaved pineapple', an antelope the 'creamy green avocado' and a parrot the 'tangy purple passion fruit.'  As Handa approaches Akeyo's village a goat breaks free from its rope, bangs into a tree and tangerines from the tree fall into the basket. Handa announces to Akeyo on meeting that she brings a surprise, but the story ends with Handa being the one who is surprised.     

The illustrations in the book are rich and bright, using many yellows, oranges and browns, especially in the tall grasses, offering a feel of the African landscape. As a snapshot into another culture (we're based in the UK), Eileen Browne has painted an everyday image of two girls from these villages in Kenya going about a simple task, and as such the book celebrates the girls' way of life rather objectifies it as mystifying or exotic. Saying that the traditional clothes and braided hair, the carrying of the head basket, the proximity of the Kenyan animals and the traditional names of the characters all bring insight and enrich the representations of Kenyan life here. I also like though, that some of the fruits featured in the story are 'everyday' for young children in the UK, some might be more unusual. Both difference and similarities (to children in the UK) have a place in this book, the book is inclusive and readily embraces multiculturalism.  At the core of the book for example, is a cheerful story, a story of friendship and kindness that could easily be a universal theme. 

In terms of age-range, this book works well with toddlers (and must surely sell well and do well in board book format?). It is very simple, very soft and calming, very repetitive. It's good for vocabulalry building, especially of fruits and animals. The book is a bit to straightforward and repetitive to interest slightly older children I think, trying to spot and name the animals brings interest to the three year olds, but by four my children at least, have proclaimed to have grown out of this story. Handa's Surprise inspires a vast array of supplementary reading activities online though, so the longetivity of the book could be easily increased. 
In all, this is a short, cheerful book offering insight for young children into a way of life in a specific part of  Kenya. It gets the thumbs up as a read which embraces diversity.  

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