Ayobami was unexpected. I only knew this picture book was on a lot of Best of Lists for 2018. I can see why.
Illustrated by Mar Azabal. Translated from Spanish by John Brokenbow
Orig. 2017: Ayobami y el nombre de los animales
Cuento de Luz SL, 2018. Hardcover Picture Book, 30 pages.
Now that the war had finally come to an end, the children could return to school. Ayobami was eager to start and decided not to wait for the others before setting off. Her father made her boat out of paper and she was to follow it down the river. When it sinks, she is unsure of her way.
Enter a hippopotamus who offers her “the quickest way” to the schoolhouse in exchange for a promise that she will write his name for him. She meets many creatures afterward: a crocodile (my favorite illustration), a leopard, a long, green snake, a spider, and a mosquito. They all let her pass when she offers to write their name.
“In class, Ayobami learned the letters of the alphabet.
She learned how to put them together to make sounds.
To join the sounds to make words.
To mix the words together to make sentences.
And she heard the music that comes from making words.”
On her return home, she hands each animal a scrap of paper with their name printed on it, and an illustration. She arrives home.
This is where the story takes an unexpected turn—by merely continuing. It doesn’t close with some intimation that she’ll meet more animals upon her return to school the next day. Or with her regaling her father about her day. It continues on with a request from her father that she ‘show him what she learned.’
Of course, by the time she arrives home, she doesn’t have her paper and she had worn out her pencil in class. She didn’t have any evidence of what she learned. “Her father walked back into the house with angry expression, believing that his daughter had wasted her time at school.”
In the night, the wind blows to collect all the scraps, waking the animals that were dreaming of their names, and returning the pieces to a single piece of paper. Ayobami and her family find them on the door the next morning. Beyond her father coming to ‘understand that Ayobami had learned to read and write at school’, “He understood that she had made the animals dream about the sound of their names.”
Also unexpected: I mean, what does “made the animals dream” even mean? And then you remember that the animals were not only appeased by, but excited to see their written name. (to be known in a different way?)
Now she is sent along to school again, and its “along the path that leads to the place where hope is born.” And now my mind is really turning over Ávila and Azabel’s book.
Ayobami and the Names of the Animals is a picture book of a little girl who goes to school where she’ll find an education, and listeners learn adjectives and animals along the way—like many primer picture books that extoll the value of educational opportunities. But any expectation that literacy is only what happens in school or in this picture book is undermined in a few ways. For one, there is that explicit reminder that there is a “path that leads to the place.”
Mar Azabal’s illustrations include pencils, lined paper, and/or letters in their composition, in every scene. One of the most moving is the incorporation of letters and pencil with bullet casings in the opening. The only scene with absence is when she’s home and empty-handed and at a loss.
She brings her world and experiences (encounters) into the classroom with her. The music she hears when making words, enters the dreams of the animals whose names she writes for them. She returns from the classroom with what she learns there and brings those things into the world.
Pilar López Ávila also reminds us that Ayobami’s learning relies on her opportunity to do so: safety, a school/teacher, and her father’s permission. Ayobami and the Names of the Animals questions the privilege of that ubiquitous array of animal primers and alphabet books and first day of school narratives that flood library and bookstores shelves. And it offers a sensation of urgency and optimism of what educational opportunities can do to shape not only an impressionable child, but how she will in turn, shape her world.
Recommended for all the libraries, for those passionate about education, and educating girls specifically; it’s a good animal primer, alphabet book, and effort to diversify (it’s a translated work, the authors are from Spain, the setting is Africa).
Note on the cover: her looking up at the reader, hugging her paper to her: waiting, but not looking for permission?