Guest blog by Helen Bartle – What is wrong with Handa’s Surprise, that much loved book of many an Early Years setting?

Consider if the book provides an accurate representation of Kenyan life or are we as readers viewing it through our white, euro centric lens? Does Eileen Browne provide a window into Kenyan life?

Does Browne write from an insider perspective with an own voice perspective of Kenya…she does not and with this she becomes an unreliable narrator, unable to provide an accurate portrayal of the rich detail of Kenya. 

The children we are sharing Handa’s Surprise with are unable to critically appraise the pictures in this picture book. If we are using Handa’s Surprise with our children they are likely to form the view that Handa’s experience is the experience of all Kenyans and are therefore likely to form the view that Kenya is straw huts and walking from village to village with an ostrich, picking guavas from trees. Now I’ll be honest I’ve never been to Kenya but I know enough about ostrich’s to know I would not want to be walking alongside one! And I also know that Kenya isn’t all straw huts and village life, consider Nairobi or Mombasa for starters. But do the children we teach know this?

As an aside I know that they aren’t mentioned in the book but pasta necklaces…I see this activity so many times and seriously, what are we teaching our children here? Fine motor skills, pattern….perhaps, or are we teaching our children that this is what people in Kenya wear???

Something to reflect on perhaps. Does the book provide an accurate window into Kenyan life? I would argue not.

But that’s not my only issue.

I see so many settings and activities that don’t just use Handa’s Surprise as a way into learning about Kenya, but Africa. A quick Pinterest search throws up, an “African” animal train safari, exploring “African” instruments, drawing “African” fruits. 

Kenya itself is, 580,367 square kilometres in size and home to out 47.6 million people, but Africa, the CONTINENT, that’s 54 countries, 1.37 billion people all reduced to Handa, Akeyo and their two villages with straw huts. I found a book shelf with Handa and a book about West Africa and if you are unsure why this is problematic, just look up Kenya on google maps. 

It’s essentially the same as using an Enid Blyton book to represent Europe or Harry Potter to represent school life…it’s completely unrepresentative.

So my message is, find better books, consider what is on your bookshelf, is it an own voices book, does it provide an accurate mirror or window or does it reduce an entire continent to two people?