Review: CHILDREN OF THE BENIN KINGDOM by Dinah Orji

CHILDREN OF THE BENIN KINGDOM

by DINAH ORJI

Published by Dinosaur Books

Key words: fiction, history, adventure, Africa, Benin, adoption/fostering

Age range: 8 – 11 ish

Busy teacher? Skip to the bottom of the page for the summary.

What do you know about the history of Africa? If you’ve had a typical British education with no family links to the continent, probably not much. Growing up in Libya I saw the evidence of diverse cultures and complex, long-lasting civilisations all around me. It seemed too obvious to mention that there were and had always been connections and networks, stretching from Europe to North Africa and over the Sahara to rest of the continent. But when I went back to school in Britain that perspective simply melted away. Africa was only mentioned, in history lessons, as a place that Europeans went to, to ‘explore’, ‘discover’ and so on, as if the continent had come into being at the point Europeans reached it, and purely for their convenience. The idea of Africa existing entire in itself; having its own civilisations that rose and fell, traded and warred with each other, made art and weapons without help or hindrance from European states, was never mentioned – if anything, there was a vague suggestion that Africa was wilderness.

Of course, there were plenty of African civilisations throughout history. One of the most magnificent was the Benin Kingdom of Dinah Orji’s title. The author explains in one of her useful historical notes at the back of the book, that ‘Benin’ isn’t a name that her characters would have recognised – but it is the most recognisable  to readers in Britain who may have heard of the Benin bronzes. This is also the term used on the National Curriculum which suggests study of Benin from 900 – 1300 AD as a topic for Key Stage 2.

The story:

The main character is Ada, a girl who has grown up on the fringes of the powerful Edo people’s land. Ada has always known she was adopted, but not the true secret of her birth. When she discovers that secret, it puts her in great danger at the hands of the Edo sky king, considered a living god with enormous power and authority.  But with her quick wits and the help of friends, she manages to survive a dangerous journey along the river and into the forest, through the lands of hostile chiefs, and find her true home. The book’s storytelling voice means it feels written as Ada herself would have told it to her friends, looking back. The danger, at the hands of men as well as animals, makes the story feel authentic as well as exciting. This is not a wilderness being pierced by an explorer, the sole human figure in the landscape. Nor is it the sort of book where native animals are lingered over by the author with more interest and affection, than they spend on native humans. Ada and her friends travel through a real, living society with politics, power struggles, traitors and heroes.

The roots?

In the story of royal children forced into exile, I hear echoes of legends and folk tales that go back a long way. One name that came to mind was Perseus, who in Greek myth was the son of Zeus (a sky god). His mother, Danae, was thrown out as Ada’s is, and Perseus eventually returns a hero, just as Ada does. The Mediterranean is an African sea as much as a European one, and Mediterranean myths – if you pull at the vine of them – often turn out to have roots and shoots in Africa. Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the fact that Andromeda (a woman rescued by Perseus from a sea monster) was described by Greeks as an Aethopian – or African – princess. https://www.theroot.com/was-andromeda-black-1790874592 . I would be fascinated to know more about these connections and if they have any relationship to the story. Mostly though, I’m just thrilled to be seeing more fiction for all ages exploring African history. CHILDREN OF THE BENIN KINGDOM will be a great addition to any child’s bookshelf.

Where to get it:

I bought this book from Ayesha at Mirror Me Write, a start-up selling diverse children’s books, and it came with some gorgeous stickers!

Teacher TL:DR

A well-researched, exciting and accessible historical adventure set in 12th century Benin, suitable for KS2 and lower KS3. There’s a strong heroine. As well as reading it for pleasure, it can be used to support primary history teaching: (National curriculum KS2: Benin (West Africa) c. AD 900-1300). There’s also an opportunity to discuss parallels with Greek myths. Useful historical notes at the back. More resources:
Images and text about the Benin Bronzes online: (https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/objects-news/benin-bronzes )

Episode 4: Cities. in Africa’s Great Civilisations currently on BBC4 iplayer (September 2020). (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b5b4vy/episodes/guide)

Tower Hamlets Book Award

Megaphone director Leila Rasheed’s EMPIRE’S END has been shortlisted for the Tower Hamlets Book Award. Hooray! The book is part of the Voices series published by Scholastic, which explores hidden stories of people of colour in British history. It follows a girl from Leptis Magna in Libya, who makes a dangerous journey with the emperor Septimius Severus to the far corner of the empire, cold Britannia. EMPIRE’S END is a story about the emotional and physical journeys of migration, and about growing up between worlds. Click through for the full shortlist of amazing books:

https://www.towerhamlets-sls.org.uk/thba20/

empire's end

MegaphoneShout: a list of creators of colour

The Background – by Chitra Soundar

Screenshot 2020-07-09 at 07.17.51

It all started with this tweet. I’ve been part of tweeting and RT-ing names of writers and illustrators of colour ever since I’ve been active on Twitter. Every day someone asks and everyday we all tweet and tag and the transient nature of Twitter has been its failure to generate anything more permanent for our audiences.

You might know me as a talkative storyteller or an author running workshops or giving lectures. But I’m a writer first and a shy one at that. I’m a pretend extrovert and all the joys of organising from the grassroot seemed overwhelming for someone who lives inside the pages of her notebook.

But the urge to do something has overcome my fear of starting something new that would drive me away from my writing. So here we are.

Why do we need this resource?

I tried to share some web pages that Matt Imrie created as the first list. Then we were delighted when Breaking New Ground came along and partnered with Booktrust Represents.  I also talked to couple of people in the US working on something similar and the size of the job intimidated me.

However as an author myself, I find that many readers and booksellers don’t know us, not many teachers read our books in classrooms, not many parents (even families of colour) don’t know about our books.

What is this resource aiming to be?

This resource will be a showcase of British kidlit authors and illustrators of colour to the wider world. However it will never be exhaustive or comprehensive.

It is up to creators to upload their details onto the website. We may invite people who we would love to see on the website to upload their details. However, if you prefer not to be here for whatever reason, that’s your right and we respect it.

We will aim to showcase books, lists, resources, topic finders and stuff as we go along (as I figure out how to get help, get funding, get more volunteers).

We will aim to connect with publishers and agents to ask their authors and illustrators to register.

We will connect this with Megaphone Write which is the amazing organisation Leila Rasheed has been running to provide resources for writers of colour – workshops, support, a chance to talk to experienced writers of colour etc.

This resource doesn’t intend to be an academic document, fully researched and linked to ISBN and all that.

We will have a data protection policy in place. We will never sell or give your information to anyone without your permission.

So What Now?

Here is a quick preview We will be updating this as things evolve.

For British Kidlit Authors and Illustrators or Colour:

  • We will be requesting you to fill in a short form that will provide your bio, photo and a few details to showcase you here.
  • We will also ask if you want to volunteer with us for any new things we want to do – from website design to social media, there will be an opportunity for people with more time and less of it.
  • We will solicit your suggestions on what you want to see here. We want this to be creator-led from the inside. So your ideas and your expertise are welcome.

For Allies

  • We hope you will share this resource with your schools, libraries, communities and universities.
  • We hope  folks in publishing will look up this list for new commissionings, festivals and such.
  • We want publishers and publicists to encourage their authors and illustrators to be showcased here.
  • If you want to fund any of our efforts, please do get in touch.

What are the Timelines?

All I can say is soon. We’ve gone from a tweet to a project in less than 24 hours. So we don’t want to rush in and fall flat. But it won’t be so late that all my readers go to university by the time I finish this.

Watch this space for updates.

How do you keep in touch?

There are two options:

  • Follow Megaphone Write on Twitter – we will announce there.
  • Fill this google form if you want to be showcased here or want to be an ally. We will send out an email when we are ready with actions for either of those groups.
  • You can also email megaphonewrite@gmail.com if you have comments or suggestions.

Both Leila @ Megaphone and I have been overwhelmed by the support from the kidlit folks, teachers, librarians, academics, booksellers and more. Thank you!

Signing off,

Chitra Soundar

I live here on Twitter.

Here is an update (25 Jul 2020) ! Read this thread to find out where we are now.

 

Books for Keeps – worth a read

If you’re interested in race, racism, unconscious bias etc. in children’s literature, Darren Chetty and Karen Sands O’Connor write a must-read column in Books for Keeps . http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/241/childrens-books/articles/beyond-the-secret-garden-classic-literature-and-classic-mistakes

GAP Arts mentoring for young Birmingham theatre writers

GAP Arts is offering mentoring for theatre writers based in Birmingham, ideally Balsall Heath, and aged 18 – 30. This will be a wonderful opportunity for learning, skills development and growth. See below for details and how to apply:

2020 VISION: Young Theatre Writers . https://www.thegapartsproject.co.uk/
The GAP is just embarking on an ambitious and exciting year of story and theatre at our home in Balsall Heath, courtesy of Arts Council England project funding. Our 2020 VISION project seeks to put the stories and experiences of the local community right at the very heart of our work and creates a wide range of high-quality creative opportunities for young writers and theatre makers to be involved.

The 2020 Young Theatre Writers Scheme will see up to six young Birmingham playwrights mentored and supported by established playwright Chris Cooper, who will work with you both as a group and individually. The scheme is a central element of the 2020 VISION project as a whole, with the twin aims of developing local young artists and generating new writing of relevance to Balsall Heath.

Collaborations
The programme will focus on structure and storytelling. In particular, you will explore the features and potential of the monodrama form (not to be confused with the monologue). You will learn how to develop new work using first-hand experiences and local stories as a stimulus, working from a range of source material gathered from the local community via The GAP’s 2020 VISION oral history element.
As well as also working practically on dramatic texts and attending theatre performances, the scheme also offers new playwrights the opportunity to collaborate with The GAP’s Basement Theatre Ensemble, a collective of emerging actors, designers and theatre makers, to test out your writing in practice at The GAP’s Theatre MIX scratch nights.

Commissions
Each of the writers completing the scheme will be commissioned to write a short exploratory dramatic text, for which you will receive one-to-one mentoring and support from Chris Cooper. There is, in addition, potential for these pieces to be developed in production for public performance.

Details
· Young Birmingham-based writers, 18-30 yrs

· An interest in developing writing for community theatre

· Ideally with links to, knowledge of or interest in the Balsall Heath area and community

· Scheme starts late April and runs to December 2020

· Involves 6-10 days commitment plus self-guided writing time

· Commissions: £500 available for each writer completing the scheme

To apply

Please email ceri@thegapartsproject.co.uk with 2020 YOUNG THEATRE WRITERS in the subject heading, stating your age and postcode, outlining a bit about yourself and your interest in the scheme and attaching a short piece of dramatic writing (ideally) or a piece of creative writing. Deadline: applications will be accepted up until 31 March.

NB: The GAP positively welcomes applicants from all communities and backgrounds, including those with English as a second language.

Clean Prose co-working for writers looks amazing

So this looks like an amazing thing.https://cleanprose.co.uk/ I have tried writing in co-working spaces before, but I found that writing didn’t quite gel with other professions’ working methods. People would take phone calls and so on, and it just didn’t work. Y I loved the sense of community and being around other people, though. Working from home is  great in many ways, but can be very isolating. And of course, things like Arvon, which are perfectly designed for writers to work together, are just not available every day of the year.

Clean Prose looks like an imaginative way for writers to work together – it provides quiet space, community space, and events. I hope the idea spreads to other towns and cities in the UK.

 

The Carole Blake Open Doors project seeks applications!

Many of the barriers that people of colour  encounter as writers can, in my view, be traced back to the lack of diversity in publishing. Editors of colour are few and far between, and literary agents still fewer and further! The Carole Blake Open Doors project is one example of a literary agency trying to improve things. Could this opportunity be right for you? DEADLINE: MARCH 1ST.

“The Carole Blake Open Doors Project, is a programme specifically aimed at encouraging candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds to enter the publishing industry.

The Carole Blake Open Doors Project will offer ten days of work shadowing to a selected applicant over a two-week period, including funding for travel and up to thirteen nights’ accommodation in London. The programme, which will run twice a year, will include close mentorship with Blake Friedmann’s book agents, the opportunity to attend selected meetings with editors and clients, and the chance to be involved in every aspect of day-to-day life as an agent. It is intended that candidates will come away from the project with varied knowledge of working for a leading literary agency, the beginnings of new and essential relationships in the publishing industry, and some excellent experience to include on their CVs.

“Carole offered me my first internship in publishing at Blake Friedman. She was a formidable figure, yet warm and funny. She was deeply encouraging to me as one from a diverse background based on my age, class and race – though it was our mutual love of a great pair of shoes that really sealed the deal!  An unforgettable, truly phenomenal woman.” – Valerie Brandes, Founder & Publisher, Jacaranda Books, and former BFA intern.

Carole Blake and the Blake Friedmann team have always placed great value on diversity and openness, in the company’s client list as well as its hiring practices. We aim to build on this foundation and be proactive about drawing from a wider pool of talented applicants who are passionate about books and ambitious about getting a job in publishing.

You can read an account of taking part in the project from our first Open Doors intern Ada Igwebu here. “

AND THE STARS WERE BURNING BRIGHTLY lights up the world of books!

I am incredibly excited to be holding the proof copy of And the Stars Were Burning Brightly  by Danielle Jawando. Just look at this gorgeous thing! Then go and pre-order it from your bookseller of choice!

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/And-the-Stars-Were-Burning-Brightly/Danielle-Jawando/9781471178771

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stars-Were-Burning-Bpa/dp/1471178773

https://www.waterstones.com/book/and-the-stars-were-burning-brightly/danielle-jawando/9781471178771

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‘And The Stars Were Burning Brightly’ by Danielle Jawando

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly was written during the Megaphone scheme, so it is an amazing and really special experience to be reading it again two years on and seeing how it has developed during the editorial process. I was not surprised to see that it was the most requested proof on NetGalley, nor to hear that Melvin Burgess has called it ‘an utter page turner from a storming new talent’.

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Melvin Burgess loved it!

 

Stars’ subject matter remains – and will remain – extremely important. No teenager or parent in Britain today will be unaware of the potential for social media to get out of hand. Danielle has personal experience of this, which she draws on for this wise, moving YA novel. But the novel is so much more than a documentary. My heart ached for Nathan, on a quest for the truth behind his brother’s death. Beautiful meditations on art and space science mingle with a gritty story of ordinary teenagers trying to find human connections and freedom in a world that wants to dehumanise them.

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary book and deserves all the praise it is getting (and it’s getting a lot).  Published by Simon and Schuster, it comes out in March 2020 . You can follow it on Twitter on #Burnbright @DanielleJawando @SimonKids_UK.

Since Megaphone, Danielle has also written a life of Maya Angelou for the children’s series: Little Guides to Great Lives. Thanks to series such as these, there is now no excuse for parents and teachers to not introduce children to great people of colour in history. The books are out there – go and buy them!

‘Maya Angelou’ by Danielle Jawando

As the recent Book Trust Represents report showed, writers of colour are still under-represented in children’s literature. In 2017, just 1.98% of children’s book creators were British people of colour. For context, the 2011 census indicated that 19.5% of people in England and Wales were from minority ethnic backgrounds. That is a  stark contrast, and it’s the very reason that Megaphone was created.  So this copy of And The Stars Were Burning Brightly isn’t just a proof copy. It is wonderful and encouraging evidence that writers can make a difference. Well done Danielle!

 

 

The Emma Press wants your picture books!

From 14th January 2019, The Emma Press will be accepting picture book proposals for children. Successful proposals will be matched with an illustrator, and authors who illustrate their own work are also welcome to submit. Find out more here: https://theemmapress.com/2018/11/call-for-picture-book-manuscripts/

I’ve known The Emma Press for a while now, as an energetic and exciting Birmingham-based poetry publisher with a strong reputation for bringing translated work to the UK. They are now branching out into picture books, and having seen some of their illustrated books, I am looking forward to some wonderful, high quality publications. Good luck to all who apply!
Emma-Press-logo

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