A Journal of African Children's and Young Adult Literature

Editor’s Introduction: Looking Back to Traditions (From the Inaugural Issue of Sankofa)

I am delighted to present the inaugural issue of Sankofa: A Journal of African Children’s and Young Adult Literature. The concept for this journal emerged from discussions with Brenda Randolph, editor of Africa Access Review and K-12 editor of H-AfrTeach book reviews, and Patricia Kuntz, a specialist in African children’s literature, on the dearth of information and scholarship available in this field. We wanted to create a forum devoted to the study of African and African diaspora literatures, and to highlight the Children’s Africana Book Awards. When Brenda agreed to serve as assistant editor, our dream of starting a journal was well on its way to becoming a reality. Furthermore, the founding of the journal was made possible by the strong support of Morgan State University’s College of Liberal Arts and the Department of English and Language Arts, where the journal is housed.

Sankofa is a peer-reviewed journal aimed at a diverse audience of teachers, students, librarians, researchers, writers, illustrators, editors, and publishers worldwide. The name of the journal is taken from an Akan word meaning “going back to the past” or “retrieving what is left behind.” Sankofa’s primary objectives are to offer a variety of perspectives on children’s and young adult literature about Africa; to identify common inaccuracies, stereotypes, and biases in books set in Africa; to provide readers with in-depth book reviews and scholarly articles on emerging trends in African and African diaspora literatures; and to stimulate a global conversation on the comparative patterns in the representation of children in literature.

In keeping with these goals, the journal is organized into three major sections. The African Scene features critical and analytical essays on established and new authors and illustrators, developments in book production for children in Africa, and examination of a specific genre or theme. The Literatures of the Diaspora focuses on books published about Africa or the diaspora outside the continent. The articles in this section analyze the themes, geographical regions, and historical figures that interest publishers and readers about Africa; and explore such issues as the effective use of African folktales in the diaspora and an accurate and balanced representation of African cultures in books for young people. The Children’s Africana Book Awards section provides reviews (by subject area experts) of the books submitted for the award each year, essays on the winners, and an analysis of publishing trends.

The articles in this inaugural issue focus on the rich heritage of the African continent and how it informs and transforms modern publications for children both within and outside Africa. Michael Daniel Ambatchew traces the innovative strategies employed (since the 1990s) by the Ethiopian government, authors, illustrators, and publishers to develop a viable infrastructure for the publication of children’s books. In order to counteract the influx of foreign reading materials for school children and to nurture an Ethiopian national identity, writers and publishers are turning to their ethnically diverse storytelling traditions for the subject matter of supplementary readers in English. In transferring oral literature into the printed word, they are literally taking the journey that the term Sankofa implies—that is, they are “retriev[ing] the knowledge of the past to prepare for the future” (see Hughes). Osayimwense Osa’s discussion of the novels of Cyprian Ekwensi not only depicts Nigerian Islamic culture but also points out that indigenous African practices and elements of storytelling permeate the Islamic ethos in Nigeria and Ekwensi’s narrative style. Anita Pandey’s detailed analysis of speechlike discourse in selected books for young people argues that English has been “Africanized” in West Africa. She cites the infusion of colloquialisms in Pidgin, traditional proverbs and songs, grammatical structures, repetitive style, and code-mixing in both retellings of folktales and creative works. These linguistic traits are evidence that a colonial language—English--has been adapted to reflect the cultures, traditions, and speech patterns of West Africans.

Grace Cooper examines the myth of the black mermaid in African folktales and in its hybrid forms after it absorbed European and indigenous influences in the Americas and the Caribbean. Cooper’s article is timely because contemporary women scholars are re-examining the myth of the black mermaid and repositioning it to reveal feminist, colonialist, and patriarchal influences. In a recent conference paper, Nancy Huse analyzed Virginia Hamilton’s womanist retelling of an African American mermaid tale, stating that “[Hamilton] uses tradition as a source of wisdom, but creates art that refashions tradition to include the interdependence of all people” (unpublished). In contrast, South African scholar Nokwenza Plaatje states that her “interest in African mythology and existing orality lies in how it can be (re)deployed as a critical and heuristic modality for engaging contemporary social problematics.” She sees the mamlambo myth (the South African version of mermaid), like all mythology in general, as an interpretive model. In the language of the living tradition among the indigenous people, she continues, mamlambo is represented in a patriarchal notion, a reflection of the Christian missionary and colonial discourse. Thus, in the most popular view mamlambo is an evil and manipulative seductress, and can only be invoked through witchcraft. However, there is an emerging postcolonial discourse in contemporary literature and film that is beginning to re-deploy the myth as a trope for transformation and change. In so doing, they view the myth as an open-ended metaphor that can have both positive and negative characteristics.

Three articles focus on an autobiographical journey. Author Cristina Kessler tells how her discovery of the traditions surrounding the baobab tree and its practical use as a storage tank for water in Northwest Sudan found a creative outlet in her picture book My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd. The story emphasizes the importance of maintaining time-tested practices along with modern technology. Niki Daly, winner of the 2002 Children’s Africana Book Award for Young Children, takes an intensely personal journey to his childhood in Apartheid South Africa in order to understand how it colored his thinking and how the gentle influence of two Black women empowered him to rise above the fear and hatred of racism. As an author-illustrator, his sensitive portrayals of the lives of Black South Africans have become a means of redeeming the past. And, finally, Helene Schr takes a collective approach when describing the agenda of a Swiss publishing house to challenge the imperialist/colonialist ideology that rationalized the publication of racist and stereotypical books about Africa, Asia, and Latin America for European children. By publishing the works of authors from these continents, the Baobab Children’s Books Fund is giving Africans an opportunity to speak to European children in their own voices—albeit in German translation.

As the above articles indicate, the field of African and African diaspora literatures is a fascinating and complex one. We open the forum for discussion and scholarly dialogue through the pages of Sankofa, and we are pleased to have colleagues in Africa who share their research with us. Such multiple perspectives will enhance knowledge, build bridges of understanding, and develop cultural literacy. We look to you—our readers and contributors—to help us make this new publishing venture a success.
Meena G. Khorana


Works Cited
Hughes, Norman A. “Sankofa Collection.” 12 Oct. 2002. <www.the-webstore.com/figurines/sankofa/sankofa-menu.htm>.

Huse, Nancy. “Virginia Hamilton’s Womanist Mermaid: A Chante-fable from Africa.” Unpublished.

Plaatje, Nokwenza. Email to Meena Khorana, 8 Feb. 2002.

Meena G. Khorana is a professor of English at Morgan State University (Baltimore, Maryland), where she teaches courses in the Honors Program, adolescent literature, Victorian literature, and diasporic and postcolonial literatures. She is a member of the core faculty of the university’s newly founded African Studies Program. Khorana is the author of The Indian Subcontinent in Literature for Children and Young Adults: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Books (Greenwood, 1991), Africa in Literature for Children and Young Adults: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Books (Greenwood, 1994), and Life and Works of Ruskin Bond (Praeger, forthcoming); editor of British Children’s Writers 1800-1880 (Gale, 1996) and Critical Perspectives on Postcolonial African Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Greenwood, 1998); and past editor-in-chief of Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature (from 1995-2001). Her many articles have appeared in publications such as Children’s Literature, The Lion and the Unicorn, Library Trends, Writer and Illustrator, and the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.

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