I was introduced to a newcomer to the United States yesterday, and I’m not talking about an English-language learner. The newcomer is a children’s novel written by Chinua Achebe, the Nigeria-born author of Things Fall Apart. The children’s book was first published in South Africa in 1966 and was just issued for the first time in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House.
I came across the little book, Chike and the River, while browsing in the Teaching for Change bookstore at one of my favorite downtown restaurants, Busboys and Poets. It was being featured as a hot-off-the-press book. It sat on a special stand on top of the children’s literature shelves of the bookstore. The paperback book is illustrated with catchy prints by Edel Rodriguez in a color scheme of orange, black, and off-white.
I didn’t even know that Chinua Achebe was still living, I thought to myself. It has been ages since I had read his memorable novel about white colonialism in an African village and the resulting decline of African traditions. In searching the Web today, I learned that Achebe joined the faculty of Brown University in 2009 as a professor of Africana Studies.
I read half of the 94-page book, Chike and the River, while still in the bookstore. I then bought the book and read the rest of it this afternoon sitting in my office cubicle. The tale about an 11-year-old boy trying to realize his dream of crossing the Niger River on a ferry is a page turner. Chike learns moral lessons along the way, such as right and wrong ways to pursue getting money, but the book isn’t preachy. As a reader, you’re cheering for Chike because he seems so friendly and sincere. You have to laugh at how he sometimes falls for what his friends tell him, even though you know he knows better.
The book is written in plain English, with short sentences. It’s accessible to English-language learners. And more important, it’s written from an African perspective, so it may provide a different perspective than some of the other books typically in the library of an English-as-a-second-language teacher. Achebe wrote the book for his daughter when she started school in Nigeria because her books were written by Westerners and didn’t have characters in them like her, according to a review of Chike and the River in the Boston Magazine. In Chike, Achebe created a character that was like people she knew.
The book tops my list of precious reading finds this summer.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.