Too Small Tola shares something with children worldwide.
Too Small Tola, by Atinuke, is close to the perfect storybook for early readers. One thing children all over the world share with each other is exactly that, that they are children – they are too young, too short, too slow, too small, too everything.
Tola, the youngest in her family, lives in an apartment in Lagos, a city in the country of Nigeria, in the continent of Africa. She lives with an older sister, Moji, an older brother, Dapo, and a grandmother, Grandmommy. Her brother is fast, especially when playing football (soccer), her sister is clever and excels in school, and her grandmother is loving and bossy. Tola does not like being small, but she does like school, especially numbers and math.
As I read the book for the first time, I was caught up with the author’s voice and manner in which the story is told. I felt like I was hearing the story of Too Small Tola, as well as reading it. It is a story rich in the oral tradition of storytelling. The story is told not in chapters but in small vignettes, little stories that tell us about an incident in Tola’s life. Three vignettes make up the whole book. And by the time the book is ended, we know something about Tola that I’m pretty sure not even Tola knew about herself when the story began.
Each story begins with the words, “Tola lives in a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria.” What is a “megacity,” the early reader might think? Or if the early reader is lucky and someone else is reading the story out loud, that reader might stop and ask, “I wonder what a megacity is?” So, even before getting into the story, the author, who, by the way, goes by only one name, “Atinuke,” uses a word that might not be familiar to most readers. Since I am way older than an early reader, I can say that without looking it up, I understood “megacity” to mean (mega=big): a big city. However, I had not heard that word before and looked it up in the Cambridge Dictionary and found the words “big city” hardly cover its meaning. To qualify as a megacity, it must be VERY, VERY LARGE, a city with a population of more than ten thousand people! At this point in my comments about this splendid book, I would again encourage the early reader’s family to have an atlas handy so that Lagos can be found in the country of Nigeria, in the continent of Africa.
The first vignette is about Tola unwillingly helping her Grandmommy do some shopping. We can see from the illustration by Onyinye Iwu that the basket Tola will carry on her head is very, very big, and when filled with the items Grandmommy intends to buy (and some unintended items), we wonder why Grandmommy chooses Tola and not her bigger older brother or sister to help. Grandmommy may be funny and bossy, but she is also smart, and we will find out why she chooses Tola.
The second vignette tells the tale of a day of a power outage, a plumbing problem, a water shortage, and a bully. Things like this often occur in a megacity like Lagos, especially in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Once again, Tola must help as much as possible. It is early morning, and neither she nor her sister can wake their brother to help. So, they must carry empty containers from their apartment to a pump located down the street. It is early in the morning, and both girls want to hurry so they can wash and use the bathroom before being late for school. They complete one round of retrieval, but something happens on Tola’s second trip to the water pump, and her sister is now ahead of her in a long line of neighbors waiting to use the pump. Is Tola strong enough to fill up more containers, get back to the apartment, and then get to school on time? Where does the bully come in? No spoilers here, you will have to read the book.
The last incident is very complicated and involves two major holidays occurring on the same day, one Christian and the other Muslim (Easter and Eid); a neighbor and popular tailor who is injured and cannot travel to measure outfits to be worn by his Christian and Muslim customers; Tola’s brother who needs to build his muscles to be picked for a special soccer team; and Grandmommy’s idea of how Tola and her brother might save the tailor from ruin.
Too Small Tola succeeds on several levels. To begin with, most American readers, Black or white, know very little about the continent of Africa, its countries, or its storytelling wealth. I hear from some readers who are put off by the difficulty of correctly pronouncing African names, which is why I’ve included a link to the perfect answer to that problem for any language. Tola comes from a Nigerian culture of strong women, and Atinuke’s gift is to display that strength by actions and not words. I encourage the children who read Too Small Tola (or their parents who might read it to them) to link onto both the author and illustrator’s websites. You will be amazed and enchanted and maybe wonder why their work has not come to your attention before this.
And once again, I hope you will visit your local independent bookstore and ask for more books by Atinuke. Illustrators like Onyinye Iwu should also be names to look for. What a pleasure to have read Too Small Tola, and to recommend it to you. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Atinuke: Anna Hibiscus; The No. 1 Car Spotter; Baby Goes to Market; B is for Baby; Anna Hibiscus’ Song; Hooray for Anna Hibiscus; Splash, Anna Hibiscus; Good Luck Anna Hibiscus; Have Fun Anna Hibiscus; Catch that Chicken!; Love from Anna Hibiscus; Go Well, Anna Hibiscus; You’re Amazing Anna Hibiscus; Double Trouble Anna Hibiscus; Welcome Home Anna Hibiscus; Baby, Sleepy Baby.
Also available books illustrated by Onyinye Iwu: Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls; What Sunny Saw in The Flames; Black Sparkle Romance; A Taste of Love; Love Next Door; Elevator Kiss; Finding Love Again; A Tailormade Romance; The Seeing Place; Loves’s Persuasion.