[Book Review] Malaika's Costume by Nadia L. Hohn

Nadia L. Hohn (Author), Irene Luxbacher (Illustrator)
Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2016
Picturebook, ages 3-7 years

Jamaican-Canadian author Nadia L. Hohn’s picturebook debut, illustrated by Irene Luxbacher, is a welcome addition to Caribbean children’s literature. Set in Trinidad, the story begins with Malaika confronted by an experience common to many children– feeling left out. Unlike her friends, she is without a costume for the Kiddies Carnival. To make matters worse, her mother is away in Canada and hasn’t sent the money for the costume of her dreams.

Malaika becomes more upset when Granny tries to make amends by offering her a costume she herself wore as a child. She runs off to pout, but cheers up when she has an idea to use what she has to make something new. This is considered, especially by older folks, to be a commendable skill. Her efforts are successful and she is able to take part in the Carnival.

The charm of this story lies as much in how it is told as in the plot. Malaika’s narrative, in the present tense, slips from “Standard English” (“I am a beautiful peacock. Each feather shimmers – green, gold, turquoise and brown.”) to dialect (“Carnival soon come and everyone getting their costume ready”) in the way that children’s speech does. The story flows with rhythm and melody, making it a joy to read. Luxbacher’s illustrations in vibrant colour capture the warmth of Trinidad and the excitement of Carnival.

Listed for 3 to 7-year-olds, the book would be ideal for reading aloud to younger children at home or school. Strong readers in grade two should be able to read it on their own. A short glossary explains the meaning of uncommon words and the names of the traditional Carnival masquerade characters played by Malaika’s friends: Jab Molassie, an acrobatic devil; Moko Jumbie, a stilt walker; and Pierrot, who carries a pistol or a whip. These characters are also illustrated. Even children who are already familiar with these masquerade characters would benefit from having more background information about Trinidad and Carnival. Parents and teachers would need to provide this from their own knowledge or research.

It is important for children to see themselves in books– their physical likenesses, their immediate everyday experiences and surroundings, their culture and their speech. This reflection of themselves helps them to see their place in society and develop self-esteem. However, the diversity of the Caribbean presents a dilemma. Even among the English-speaking Caribbean countries there are ethnic and cultural differences. Children are usually only familiar with the folklore and traditions of their own country. In Malaika’s Costume, most Caribbean children would see their physical likenesses in the illustrations, and be familiar with the notion of a mother leaving her child with grandparents to seek work abroad, but Kiddies Carnival and the masquerade characters are culturally specific to Trinidad and Tobago. Nonetheless, the story provides for other children a useful introduction to a study of their Caribbean neighbours.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for home and class libraries in primary schools, and for kindergartens and basic schools. For children of Caribbean descent who were born overseas, and for parents seeking multicultural books for their children, it is an entertaining introduction to the culture of Trinidad and Tobago. For those of us who like to give books, not toys, as Christmas presents, we need look no further than Malaika’s Costume.

About the Author

Helen Williams graduated from Oxford University and then embarked on a teaching career, thirty-four years of which were spent in Jamaica. Since retiring, she has taken up writing adventure and fantasy stories for children. Her short story “Finding My Roots” was published in Tony Bradman’s anthology, All in the Family in 2008 and her short story, "Flash", won a silver medal and an award for Best Junior Short Story in the 2010 JCDC’s Creative Writing Contest. She is the author of Delroy in the Marog Kingdom (Macmillan Caribbean, 2009), a chapter book in the Island Fiction Series, written under the penname Billy Elm; Errol's Taxi (Pearson Education, 2013); and Princess, a self-published e-book which won a bronze medal and an award for the Best Intermediate Novelist in the 2011 JCDC Creative Writing Contest. She lives in Jamaica.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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