CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 15 . . . .March 21, 2008
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. Georgie’s focus on work, family functions, and planning her trip to Africa overshadows her friend Jodi’s growing concern about her older sister’s eating habits and extreme weight loss. Using Jodi’s online search for information about anorexia, Joyal introduces several other issues pertaining to young people’s 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, Joyal’s 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 audiences’ lives, including anorexia, self-employment for youths, dealing with the divorce and remarriage of parents, the education of young girls in Africa, travel, preteen girls’ growing interest in boys, and mother-daughter relationships. Each one of these topics would provide sufficient fodder for a separate novel. Unfortunately Joyal doesn’t take any of the issues far enough to be thought-provoking or inspiring.
Recommended with reservations.
Karen Taylor is a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature candidate at the University of British Columbia
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.