Handa’s Surprise – Eileen Browne

POINTS: 6 out of 10.

Bechdel: 1 point
Variety of characters: 1 point
Good story: 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 2 points.

FINALLY! A book with a protagonist who isn’t a white kid or an Anglicised animal!

Handa’s Surprise is about a little girl who takes a basket of fruit to her friend Akeyo. On the way the fruit gets stolen by a variety of animals, and eventually replaced with a pile of tangerines. Akeyo is pleasantly surprised because she loves tangerines, and in a play on the title, Handa is also surprised!

The book is set in Kenya, the animals are African animals, even the fruit is reminiscent of home for me. Guavas and mangos are stolen by ostriches and zebras. The blurb in the 1001 Books book is all about the ‘exotic’ animals and fruit, but for me it feels not exotic but comfortable and familiar. I grew up, not in Kenya, but in South Africa, and the fruits in Handa’s basket are the fruits I used to eat in my childhood garden. This thrill of familiarity must be minor compared to children who almost never see characters like themselves in books.

The best part is that despite the 1001 blurb, there’s nothing exotic or token about the story. It doesn’t feel like “a story about a black African kid”, it feels like a story about a little girl taking a surprise to her friend. It just happens to be a surprise made of the kind of fruit that grows in Kenya, and is filched by the animals indigenous to that place.

And on top of all that, it passes the Bechdel  with flying colours. In fact, the only named characters are girls, and the only dialogue is between them.

I love it. It was a total pleasure to read to my son, who thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt almost nostalgic to me despite the fact that I had never read it before. It’s a great little tale. Definitely recommended.

What do you think of Handa? Do you know of other awesome kids’ books set in Africa?

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