Global Politics

Meshack Asare and children's books in Ghana

If you're reading this story, there's a good chance you were read to as a child. And if you're a parent of young children, there's an even higher chance that you read to your kids every night.

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That wasn't so for Meshack Asare. He grew up in Ghana in the 1950s and '60s.

�When I was growing up, though I liked books, all the books that were in the house belonged to my father,� Asare says. �There weren't any books for children.�

When Asare started school, he was excited to see textbooks, but they turned out to be pretty boring. Later on, when he was studying at a university in one of Ghana's larger cities, he wondered whether any kids in Ghana had grown up with books written for them.

The only ones he found were imported, mostly from Europe. The children in the pictures didn't look like him. The scenery certainly wasn't familiar. There was snow and weird animals that didn't recognize.

�This made it a priority somehow, that somebody had to make sure that there were books in which the African child would be able to recognize himself and herself in a familiar environment,� Asare says.

At age 23, Asare published his first children's book, an illustrated easy reader, called simply: �I am Kofi.� Kofi is a popular boy's name in Ghana and Asare says the book had to do with the basic notion of identity.

�That I am somebody like this, that I look like this,� Asare says. �This is my house. My house looks like this. This is how I live!�

Two years later, in 1970, he wrote and illustrated another picture book, �Taiwa Goes to Sea�. The main character is a 10-year-old boy who lives in a Ghanaian fishing village.

Taiwa is desperate to go fishing with the men. But they think he's too young. Eventually, like many a children's book character, Taiwa proves the adults wrong.

The book was a turning point for Asare. It won a UNESCO citation for �Best picture book from Africa� and was translated into Japanese and several European languages.

But critical acclaim, as all artists know, doesn't put food on the table and Asare had a family to raise. For the next ten years, he was a teacher by day and worked on his drawing and writing on the side.

In the 1970s and '80s Ghana's economy crumbled around him. Even paper became a rare commodity. His next book, �The Brassman's Secret�, was published on pink cardboard-like paper provided by a friend.

It tells the story of Kwajo, an Ashanti boy in Central Ghana, who helps his father make brass figures to measure gold dust. One day, Kwajo stares at a brass figure and it comes alive.

��Will you tell me your secret?� Kwajo asked in a whisper. �Will you?� The tiny lips seemed to part and move. Kwajo shook all over with excitement when he heard the gentle voice. �Yes, my young friend. I will show you my secret. Come with me. Close your eyes and come.'�

Meshack is both a writer and an illustrator. He describes his visual style as imperfect, which he believes African children can better relate to.

Another way his books are tailored to his African audience is their location and subject matter. He's done a series of stories set all over Ghana. The idea is to show children, in say, the capital Accra, what it's like to live in what he calls the hinterlands of the country.

Asare has also published stories set in other parts of Africa. Some are whimsical, others are quite serious.

In his first book for young adults, published in 1992, Asare tells the story of a girl whose parents are duped into letting their daughter become an indentured servant to a family friend.

He hopes that his various stories will give African children the chance to look at things with open eyes and open minds and the courage to challenge what is not good and what needs to be changed.

Asare has written 20 books and more are on the way. He doesn't live in Ghana anymore but goes back regularly. Right now his home is a tiny village in Germany. And his next book is based on the songbirds he's been observing out his window.

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