Foreign Books Worth Knowing: The Akimbo Series, by Alexander McCall Smith & LeUyen Pham (Illus.)

Hi everyone!

I discovered the Akimbo series during my bookseller’s days; needless to say I devoured all the books I could put my hands on, and I warmly recommended them to customers. From what I recall Akimbo sold fairly well. Correct me if I’m wrong, but except for Scholastic series the Royal Diaries, I cant think of many early reader books or chapter book series where cultural diversity is represented. If you have titles that I might have missed, please, leave me a comment. I can’t wait to hear about them!

Before giving you the fact sheet: Bloomsbury came under fire recently because of a mishap on a children’s book cover, which has now been corrected by the way. I know they publish several other multicultural books, though I don’t know all their titles. I thought it would be fair to acknowledge this particular cover as well. I’ve always liked the Akimbo ones. Akimbo is too cute!

Now the fact sheet:

McCall Smith, Alexander. Akimbo & the Lions. Bloomsbury, 2005

Genre: Early Reader, series

Issue/Topic: Adventure

Summary: Akimbo lives in an animal reserve, and his dad is a national guard. Akimbo obviously loves animals, and often tags along when his dad is working. The series follow Akimba in his daily life. We see him handling school, house chores, sometimes having a hard time listening to his parents like any other kid would. 😀 There is strong emphasis on preserving wild life, and as such the conflicts in the books often include going against poachers and the likes. Akimbo always comes up with the smartest ideas. He kicks behinds! (Am I allowed to say that?)

Application: Great read, lots of fascinating information about life in a reserve and animals. The books offer a wonderful platform for discussions about endangered species with the family or in the classroom.

Age: 7-8 & up

About the illustrator: Beautifully illustrated by LeUyen Pham, a San Francisco local, who had her own adventures in Africa (as she would fondly recall them during her public readings). Uyen’s work would have you travel from cultures to cultures. She is a versatile artist.

About the author: Well, Alexander McCall Smith doesn’t really need an introduction, does he? 🙂 He is the author of the bestselling series the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which is also a HBO TV series; he has written over 60 books. McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe, and grew up both there and in Scotland. He lived and worked in Botswana, helping set up a law school there. Most of his books are set in Africa, most of his characters, like Akimbo, are African. His biography is fascinating, and you can read more about him on his website (click on his name, above), where you will be greeted with a cheerful African music.

Merry Wednesday and happy reading,

Nathalie

I Have a Dream…

We have yet another book cover controversy! Maybe you’ve heard of it? There’s been a lively and interesting online conversation about it. Magic Under Glass, by Jaclyn Dolamore, reignited the discussion about book covers that are not always faithful to the story, and thus are misleading in the way they represent people of color. It actually happens more than we denounce it (Famous case: Liar cover, novel by Justine Larbalestier). That issue shouldn’t even exist anymore. Not in our century. Not ever.

To realize how deep the ramifications run, read a teen’s open letter to Bloomsbury Kids USA.

It helps to keep in mind that what is essentially discussed is NOT Magic Under Glass, which received excellent reviews, not Jaclyn Dolamore–who is loved and respected by readers, bloggers, people in the publishing industry, and certainly not bloggers’ position on that issue.

The bone of the discussion and outcry regards the accurate representation of all ethnicity on a cover of a children’s book, with respect to the story.

First I find interesting that it always seems to involve MG/YA (I’m actually thinking more young adult fictions than middle grade), and not so much picture books. Why is that? Book covers matter as much in these three cases.

So what is different? Well, when it comes to picture books, the artist not only has in mind the story and his or her own illustrative voice, but he also trusts the reader’s choice and reaction regarding to the book cover and its content. When a cover or inside illustration is different from what one might expect because of a personal interpretation of the text, it generally is because it sheds a new, enriching light on the story, inviting the reader to approach it from a variety of angles.

So why would the approach be different when it comes to teen books?

I can’t help but wonder what went wrong in this case. The publishing house, Bloomsbury, obviously liked the story since it bought the manuscript and invested in it. I will go as far as saying that they like books with people of color and give them a chance, since this isn’t the first and hopefully not the last multicultural novel that they will publish. I applaud the fact that they are exposing readers of all age to the wealth of cultural diversity. That said, what happened? O_o  (The main character is described as having “dark skin” and she appears Caucasian on the cover).

Feeding from Martin Luther King, Jr. words and vision, I dream that one day our actions will match our words; that one day when we tell our children that we do not believe in discrimination or in double standards, they will also witness it through the books that we read together; that one day reality will exceed the dream: we will gather not to denounce a cliché, a book cover misrepresentation or a ban on gay, multicultural or children books dealing with edgy issues, but that we will gather to celebrate joy, respect and diversity in all its forms.

A personal message to publishing houses: Boycotting certainly isn’t the solution. Working together is. We, writers and readers, like our publishing houses. We appreciate your work  and the selection of great books you provide us with. However the issue has implications that cannot be ignored. What could prove you and convince you that we will buy your book, regardless of the color of skin of the character on a cover? What if we tell you that we will?

Do you agree with that statement? If yes, would you show your support to writers, publishing houses and protagonists of our favorite stories by signing the I’ll Buy the Book! Petition, which assures publishing houses that we buy books primarily because of our love for them: http://www.petol.org/bc4all?

Thank you for reading. Please, share the word…

Peace,

Nathalie

Updated on 01/20/2010: there are a few more links in the comment section. The following editorial from The Wolrd SF News Blog offers an interesting point of view as well:click here.And here is an overview of several reactions throughout the web
To read the thoughts of St Martin Press editorial assistant S. Jae-Jones, check here
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01/21/2010: Jaclyn Dolamore Post.
01/21/2010: Bloomsbury just issued a statement on its website: “Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.” Thank you, Bloomsbury! Thanks to all who expressed their concerns and support! Check for yourself!
01/22/2010: These steps can make a difference!