Reading to transgress: Cultivating critical thinking in our daughters

For most of my life we lived at house number 9. According to numerology this implies a house filled with compassion, a sense of service, and the energy of contemplation. It may have been the house number, or maybe just my parents’ deep commitment to critical thought and to worlds of ideas and stories, that meant that our house was filled to the brim with books. My brothers and I had an entire library in an alcove behind the kitchen. And alongside the offerings in the school library, I read and read and read.

Becoming a mother has allowed me to be re-immersed in the pleasure of children’s books. It’s lucky that this coincided with a moment where publishing is catching up with the zeitgeist- where girls are not just meek spectators but scientists and explorers, where there is a greater sense of obligation to make space for stories of the world’s majorities, and where black and brown writers and illustrators are slowly getting more respect and recognition.

As an incurable African feminist I of course headed for the obvious books first- the books about activism and activists. But while intentionally didactic stories are needed, I have found great pleasure in being surprised by books that on the surface seem playful or even frivolous, but carry within them gems of wisdom and analysis to teach my little girl. Here are a few of the books that I have loved reading with and to my child, in the spirit of nuturing a curious mind that has a healthy critique of power.

Catch that crocodile! — Anushka Ravishankar and Pulak Biswas

When a crocodile appears unexpectedly in a village, it’s not the warrior or the policeman or the doctor that finds a way to keep the community safe - but a young Dalit girl, who finds a simple but powerful solution. This book is precious both for its storyline- upending caste and gender-based assumptions about intelligence and bravery- and it’s graphic approach that uses illustration, font and layout in remarkable ways to invoke the sounds and emotions of the plot. A winner all around.

Oi Dog – Jim Field and Kes and Claire Gray

A hilarious rhyming tale about a frog who is being ordered around by a dog, and in the face of its oppression decides to take over the world. The frog makes increasingly ridiculous rhyming decrees for other animals, mandating them into awkward and uncomfortable sitting positions. This is a story that clearly traces the path towards authoritarianism and the ways that we comply with the gradually more absurd acts of power that deny us autonomy and basic comfort. Mind you, by the time you get to the frog’s decree for itself, you are ready for regime change!

The Singing Mermaid — Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks

This story was a surprise. A singing mermaid is lured from her beachside home by a circus owner full of fake promises. She ends up imprisoned in a fishtank, only able to get out when she is obliged to perform for circus audiences making her new ‘owner’ rich, while plunging her into increasing sadness (alienated labour anyone?). She yearns to escape. One day a seagull from her home shores hears her voice and comes to the caravan where she is kept. They hatch a plan to escape- but the mermaid is despondant that she has no legs to run. Hearing this, her roommate Annie the Acrobat offers to teach her how to walk on her hands, and one night when the circus owner is out the seagull steals the key and opens the door. The mermaid gets out of the tank onto her hands and the seagull guides her back home, where she is loved and happy. Yes, all of that – in pink and yellow and girly illustrations. But you know what, this is the reality of many women’s lives and it is a story of deep solidarity and the possibility of freedom if we offer each other the tools to defy.

Clean up! — Nathan Byron and Dapo Adeola

This is the second book with our favourite dreamer-geek homegirl Rocket as protagonist, this time on an adventure to the Caribbean to visit her Afro-centric surfer grandparents. She is horrified by seeing ocean animals being strangled by plastic, and rallies the entire beach (sunburnt tourists and all) in a clean up initiative to remove all the rubbish from the shoreline. This book is a reminder about how children are not just leaders of the ‘future’, but here to guide us in the present. It is also an ode to the mavericks in our communities, the power of our visionary little girls, and a reminder about the environmental violence that is single use plastics.

I know a lot! — Stephen Krensky and Sara Gillingham

In the ageist, racist and sexist regimes of power-knowledge that we are entangled in, affirming that a small black girl knows A LOT is powerful. I read this to my daughter regularly when she was very small. She loved the rhyming story and the visuals, and the affirmation of how much she knows has definately sunk in. She knows a LOT!

The rapping princess- Hannah Lee and Allen Fatimaharan

I originally bought this for my sisterfriend MC Akua Naru but had to get a copy for my daughter as well. Its the story of a princess who can’t sing like all of the other princesses (who are Aretha-like on the vocal front…). Her voice is not dulcet, and she feels awkward about not fitting in- until she overhears the princes in the palace rhyming and thinks “why can’t I do that!?”. Well yes, the princess becomes the illest MC in the kingdom, stunning audiences with her rhymes, and finding a voice that is clearly and uniquely hers. I love this as a genesis story for women’s oral traditions, a witnessing of women’s presence in worlds we think men rule and can do best in. And yes, for the fact that, girls should always voice in whatever voice they choose, because in the words of Akua Naru the world is listening.

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(East) African feminist writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary. Women’s rights strategist and advisor on bodies, movements, feminist futures @stillsherises

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Jessica Horn

(East) African feminist writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary. Women’s rights strategist and advisor on bodies, movements, feminist futures @stillsherises