________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 15 . . . .March 21, 2008


Swahili for Beginners.

Lisa Joyal.
Toronto, ON: Sumach Press, 2007.
200 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 978-1-894549-69-1.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Karen Taylor.

** /4



"I was surprised to learn how hard it was for children to go to school in Mbosha. I couldnít believe that her older sister had been forced to quit school after grade four. At least, I thought that was what Ellie meant by Standard IV. Iíd have to check. I also couldnít believe that Ellie would need to win a scholarship just to be able to go to high school. I wanted to ask Ellie why it was so difficult for kids over there. I couldnít imagine the same thing for a kid in Canada. All the kids I knew got to finish primary school, and they all went to highschool after that." (p. 27.)

"I read her letter again. It was so cool that twelve-year-olds could climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Six thousand metres. Wow, that was high! I wonder how difficult it would be. It sure would be fun to try. And what about what Ellie had said about meeting her someday in Tanzania? It would be so amazing to go and visit her. I would even get to stay at her place. One day, maybe." (p. 37.)


In Swahili for Beginners, readers meet almost-13-year-old Georgie Wilde whose interest in Africa leads her to register with an online pen pal site and begin a written dialogue with Ellie, a young girl living in Tanzania. Through their correspondence, Georgie learns many facts about the life of and cultural expectations for girls in Africa. Her interest in the things she learns from Ellie inspires Georgie to take on several jobs so she can earn money to travel to Africa to visit and also possibly to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Although her friends, including Ellie, know her plans, Georgie is reluctant to ask her mother for permission. When she finally screws up the courage to do so, her request is denied. In time, after working through her extreme disappointment, Georgie comes up with a compromise and ultimately manages to secure approval for the trip from her mother. Georgieís focus on work, family functions, and planning her trip to Africa overshadows her friend Jodiís growing concern about her older sisterís eating habits and extreme weight loss. Using Jodiís online search for information about anorexia, Joyal introduces several other issues pertaining to young peopleís activism and humanitarian efforts. She also incorporates the topics of menstruation, boys and dating as are frequently found in fiction for this pre-teen age group.

     Swahili for Beginners is set in Toronto, and the protagonist is a contemporary young Canadian teenager with a cell phone, a skateboard, access to the Internet, and divorced parents. Written in the first person, the book occasionally addresses the reader as "you" as if the narrator was speaking to the reader, yet Joyal fails to establish it as a conversation or a face-to-face recounting. As a consequence, Joyalís writing comes across as self-conscious and at times strained, particularly when she uses teenage jargon. Joyal introduces many issues relevant to the experiences of her young reading audiencesí lives, including anorexia, self-employment for youths, dealing with the divorce and remarriage of parents, the education of young girls in Africa, travel, preteen girlsí growing interest in boys, and mother-daughter relationships. Each one of these topics would provide sufficient fodder for a separate novel. Unfortunately Joyal doesnít take any of the issues far enough to be thought-provoking or inspiring.

      In part, Swahili for Beginners is about a young girl whose interest in Africa is inspired by increasing knowledge about the country through written correspondence with another young girl. In this way, the book promotes the idea of world travel. On the other hand, the novel presents the daily experience of going to school, participating in sports, communicating with parents, peers and the like. This aspect makes the book a little humdrum although Georgieís delight in new information, ideas, and discussing them provides some counterbalance. Many readers would enjoy learning about Georgieís existence. She is a good athlete, has an independent life, two best friends, and no difficulty with school. Yet these aspects make her come across as a little too good, and, as a result, a little less endearing for lack of a serious enough flaw to make her character and the plot edgy and exciting. Moreover, many of her comments and perceptions, despite the pre-teen lingo, are those of an adult, which add to the faint tension between the interests and age of the protagonist and her voice. Throughout the novel, I was hopeful that Joyal would take hold of the humanitarian potential of her narrative and have Georgie donate her savings to help Ellie go to school or make some similar statement. Unfortunately, my expectations were never met, and in a subtle way, I was left feeling that Ellie and her hard life had been made insignificant by the focus on traveling in Tanzania.

      Joyal holds promise as a writer for this age group, but I would, however, wait for her next book.

Recommended with reservations.

Karen Taylor is a Master of Arts in Childrenís Literature candidate at the University of British Columbia

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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