Black Girl Protagonists

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Marley Dias with her donated books. (Photo credit: Andrea Cipriani Mecchi at NPR news)

Congratulations and kudos to fifth-grade reader  Marley Dias for exceeding her goal of  collecting 1,000 books with black girl protagonists to donate to her school in New Jersey and to the parish in Jamaica where her mom grew up.

“I started this because in my fifth-grade class I was only able to read books about white boys and their dogs. I understood that my teacher could connect with those characters, so he asked us to read those books. But I didn’t relate to them, so I didn’t learn lessons from those stories,” Dias told the Guardian.

Librarians often talk about children’s and teen fiction as being windows and mirrors–windows to other cultures and places the reader is not familiar with, but also mirrors reflecting back young readers’ own lives as they shape their identity. What a long overdue service Marley is offering to all readers, regardless of their gender or race–windows and mirrors into the lives of black girls.

GCP cover high resEerdmans Books for Young Readers and I are excited to be sending Marley a copy of A Girl Called Problem. We think she just might identify with the spunk of the main character, Shida.

Thanks for your efforts, Marley!

(To learn more about Marley’s story, and to read her list of favorite books, check out this public radio story).

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Nyerere is Back!

Tanzanians recently elected a new president, John Magufuli, and people are excited.

Photo credit:

Magufuli supporters celebrate the new president’s election. (Photo credit:

Magufuli grew up herding cattle for his poor family, and he seems bent on putting a stop to corrupt spending. Right after he was sworn in, Magufuli slashed budgets for an upcoming independence day celebration and for politicians’ foreign travel and parties. Instead, he has invested that money in efforts like sanitation to prevent cholera and hospital equipment.

I asked my friend Modesta, whom A Girl Called Problem is dedicated to, what she thinks of his first month in office. We were just chatting informally, so please excuse Modesta’s casual English:

Ya, President Magufuli started up very well. Making sure thr is free education from form one to form four. No charges. During Kikwete’s time [the last president] he said primary education was free, but students had to pay lots of contributions. With President  Magufuli everything is free. He is making sure investors pay tax. He is hunting down all people who misused Tz money for their own interests. He is improving facilities in hospitals. And reducing public holiday expenditures and officials traveling abroad unnecessarily. All in all, so far so good. People love him. They say Nyerere is back!

Even Twitter has caught onto Magufuli’s cost-cutting measures with endless What Would Magufuli Do? tweets. Check out these two:

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 1.39.43 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-02 at 1.40.29 PMSo, next time you feel tempted to spend your money on something you don’t really need, ask yourself, “What would Magufuli do?”

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Tanzania’s 2015 Elections

If you’ve read A Girl Called Problem, then you know a good deal about Tanzania’s early political history. In fact, you should be able to tell a friend:

  • When (what decade) Tanzania achieved its independence.
  • Who Nyerere was.
  • What ujamaa was and how it factored into Nyerere’s vision for an independent Tanzania.*

As you know, A Girl Called Problem focuses on a small portion of the first decade of Tanzanian independence–the 1960s. It turns out Nyerere stayed in power for quite a while longer–some would argue too long–having been first elected as the unified nation’s president in 1965 and then retiring in 1985. At that point, Tanzania only had the one political party, which Nyerere had formed: CCM. Imagine what politics would be like if your own country had a single political party–say, the Democratic Party, OR the Republicans, OR the Tories, OR the Greens. Importantly, though, there would only be one party.

A decade after Nyerere’s retirement, Tanzania introduced a multiparty political system, and as a result other political parties were introduced to the ballot. Nevertheless, to date, Tanzania has continued to elect only CCM presidents. That could change this weekend when Tanzania holds its 2015 national election. This time, several of the smaller parties have joined forces under the coalition name Ukawa. Now the question is whether Tanzania will elect a CCM president or an Ukawa president. The CCM candidate looks like he has the upper hand, but that’s not certain.

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A crowd supporting the Ukawa candidate for president, Lowasa. Photo credit: Citizen Digital (

One thing is certain, Tanzania democracy has been enlivened by this election. In the 54 years since Tanzania achieve its independence, the country has only seen four presidents. That’s not a lot. This election looks to shake things up a bit.

*For those of you who haven’t read A Girl Called Problem, here are the answers to the questions above:

  • Tanzania achieved its independence in the 1960s.
  • Nyerere was the nation’s first president. At the time, he was the only Tanzanian with a university degree and he previously worked as a school teacher. The word for teacher in Swahili is mwalimu, so even after Nyerere moved into politics, people frequently referred to him as Mwalimu.
  • Ujamaa translates to mean familyhood in English, but it was Nyerere’s term for what he called African socialism. His dream was that all Tanzanians would live in self-sustaining villages where citizens would collectively farm, and run their own schools and health clinics.
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President Obama Calls for Empowering Girls in Kenya

As readers of A Girl Called Problem know, one of the central challenges faced by thirteen-year-old Shida in the novel is a traditional belief by some in her village that girls should not attend school. Even one of the teachers at her school holds this belief and makes it difficult for Shida and her female cousins to be there. In my author’s note at the end of the book, I discuss how access to education continues to be a major challenge for many girls in East Africa and other parts of the world. The good news is that many development organizations and leaders are beginning to understand the power of educating girls.

President Barack Obama with his Kenyan family (photo credit:

President Barack Obama with his Kenyan family (photo credit:

Among those leaders is President Obama. This week, he dedicated a good portion of his speech in Kenya (a day’s drive from where A Girl Called Problem is set in the Mwanza region of Tanzania) to talking about the importance of educating and empowering girls and women. Here’s what he had to say:

Well, so around the world, there is a tradition of repressing women and treating them differently, and not giving them the same opportunities, and husbands beating their wives, and children not being sent to school. Those are traditions. Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions. They need to change. They’re holding you back.

He continued:

Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximize their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports center: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.

As the first Kenyan-American president, Obama is in a good position to offer this critique, and, citing the United State’s reexamination of the confederate flag, he was quick to point out that all societies have bad traditions that hold them back.

Shida would have been standing up and clapping throughout his speech!

Here’s the full speech. For the section where Obama focuses on girls, listen to minutes 27-33.


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Picture Book Pairings for A Girl Called Problem

I love reading picture books and am a strong believer that young children shouldn’t be the only beneficiaries of this great body of literature. I know some wonderful teachers who will sometimes use picture books to introduce new topics to their older learners–just impress your teens or tweens that though the protagonists may be a bit young, picture books are a great window into unfamiliar topics, cultures, and perspectives, not to mention they often feature fabulous art.

When I was down in Boston in April, the wonderful Ms. JB at Boston Collegiate recommended Rehema’s Journey: A Visit in Tanzania, which she used this year to introduce A Girl Called Problem to her fifth grade class.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.29.09 PMRehema’s Journey is the story of a Tanzanian girl, living in the Pare Mountains, who at the age of nine makes her first trip to Tanzania’s famous Ngorongoro Crater with her father, a guide in the game parks. Full of pictures, the book gives readers a glimpse of everything from Rehema’s chores washing dishes under a banana tree, to the special miswaki sticks she uses to clean her teeth, to the amazing animals she sees on her safari. I highly recommend it as a compliment to A Girl Called Problem.

Other picture books worth considering (these come more broadly from East Africa):

Though published in the 1970s, this Caldecott Honored book is still a good introduction to Swahili.

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A story about generosity (something I learned a lot about while in Tanzania), but this time set in neighboring Kenya. The name Panya is unfortunate–it means “Rat” in Swahili–but otherwise a good read.

Set in Malawi (just south of Tanzania), this is a great book about the resourcefulness of young people.

Set in Malawi (just south of Tanzania), this is a great book about the resourcefulness of young people.

As one picture book will remind you, "Africa Is Not a Country," and I am straying far from East Africa by including this book from South Africa, but please indulge me as "The Herd Boy" is a great story about a boy who takes on big responsibilities at a young age and who also dreams big (much like my character, Shida).

As one picture book will remind you, “Africa Is Not a Country,” and I am straying far from East Africa by including this book from South Africa, but please indulge me as “The Herd Boy” is a great story about a boy who takes on big responsibilities at a young age and who also dreams big (much like my character, Shida).

Happy reading!

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Author visits!

IMG_3878I had such a wonderful set of visits last week. First stop on my tour was a day with 5th graders at the wonderful Boston Collegiate Charter School.


Photo credit: Ms. JB, Boston Collegiate


Photo credit: Ms. JB, Boston Collegiate

What an inspiring school community they have: ever-present, encouraging, extremely hard-working teachers; and a curious, enthusiastic and wonderfully diverse student body. The reading teachers there clearly do a phenomenal job, because the kids asked such insightful, thoughtful questions.

This mural in the front entry-way summed up the place.

IMG_3876Would that every child could attend a school like Boston Collegiate Charter School!

Next stop on my tour was Cape Elizabeth Middle School, where few of the 7th graders I met with had read A Girl Called Problem, but all of them had been studying African history, both pre- and post-colonial. What a treat it was to visit with students who had a sense of the diversity within the continent of Africa and a nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by African nations just after independence. A Girl Called Problem proved to be a perfect tie-in to their curriculum.

IMG_3883And on the final day of my visits, I enjoyed the privilege of meeting with young readers and a gymnasium full of wonderfully accomplished authors, including Ashley Bryan, Maria Testa, Mary Cerullo, Terry Farish, CB Anderson, Sarah Thomson, and Ellen Booraem at the Cape Author Fest.

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Book Tour Time!

I’m looking forward to a fun week! Thursday, I’ll spend the day with students at Boston Collegiate Charter School who have recently finished reading A Girl Called Problem. Visiting with students who have already read the book is always so rewarding. Thanks to Ms. JnBaptiste, teacher extraordinaire, for organizing the visit!

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Photo taken by Ms. JnBaptiste of some of her students reading A Girl Called Problem.

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On Friday, I’ll head north to Cape Elizabeth Middle School to visit with students who have been studying Africa. I’m looking forward to sharing pictures and stories from Tanzania to make the continent (or at least the Tanzanian portion of Africa) come alive for these kids.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.05.05 AMSaturday, I’m honored to join 70 other authors, including Ashley Bryan, Chris Van Dussen, and Tanya Lee Stone, at the Cape Author Fest. If you are in the Portland, ME, area, come  join us between 10am-2pm on Saturday!

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Authors who will be at the Cape Author Fest.

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