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Strong African Females Leads in Young Adult Books? Yes, Please.

06/17/2015 09:05 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

Meet Yaa, a 10 year old girl from a small village in Ghana, whose birth parents send her off on a journey with hopes of her never returning (crazy, right?). Because the thought of them raising a daughter that no man would want to marry was too much of a burden on them. On her journey she meets several characters, some who advise her, some tried to bamboozle her, and even one who took her in. On this particular journey to a far away village one of the characters took her in so that she could not only have Yaa help around the house, but to also give her an earful of some useful knowledge that would lead her onto another journey. Some information that would send Yaa on a quest that would eventually bring her to combat a force of evil that terrorized the people of the village. Yaa is the protagonist in the non-fiction young adult book, "Yaa Traps Death in a Basket" by writer Malaka Grant.

The novel, with its excellent story telling, has something that many young adult books lack these days. Elements like morals, substance, and wait for it...a black female lead. Not only is gender is representation important for young readers, but so are racial and ethnic representation as well. Why? Because young adult readers are very impressionable, and these books are empowering, entertaining, and they are just damn good, not just for young adults but for all readers. Like "Yaa Traps Death in a Basket". Although most of the elements of the story are Ghanaian, Malaka felt it was important that there was a pan African appeal so that a reader from any region of Africa could identify with parts of the book. The tokoloshe, for example, is an imp from South African lore. I had a short discussion with Malaka Grant about her book..

Please tell me..have you always had the character "Yaa" story in you? I want to know more about her and how you developed her...

I've known Yaa virtually my whole life, but never as a child. The girl Yaa in this story is my re-imagining of Asase Yaa, the Ghanaian manifestation of Mother Earth. She is the wife of Nyame, who is the ruler of the sky. There are no tales of where our deities come from, only that they have always existed. I wanted to write a story that explained the rainy and dry seasons in Ghana in a manner that a child could relate to, through that awkwardness phase of youth, the brashness of young adulthood and the reflections an older woman as she looks back over all she has accomplished. Sometimes, things don't always turn out the way we expect when we make big decisions - decisions that seem right in the moment but have a ripple effect that unforeseeable.

Yaa was developed around the personality of a little girl that lives in my neighborhood who is a good friend to my kids. Unlike this particular child, all three of my daughters are very confident and commanding. I have never raised an awkward, shy or pensive girl. Creating Yaa in this way was my opportunity to live in the head space of a girl completely opposite to the children in my own home!

Why do you think a story like this is important; considering the whole Disney/South Sundaes princess debacle?

I think it is extremely important that people of African decent, whether they live on the continent or not, tell our own stories. With the advent of the internet and self-publishing, we have a growing voice - both in reach and volume. The most popular novels about Africa or Blackness (or the the ones that are promoted and more easily accessed) have to do with common, repeated themes: war, famine, misfortune, etc. The focus of the stories told about Blackness are generally through the lens of poverty and how the hero/heroine of the tale struggled to escape it...or endured it with grace. There is no nuance afforded Blackness. Africans are not space explorers or deep sea divers or even princesses. In fact, up until Disney's 'Princess and the Frog', there were no Black female leading Disney characters and even then,Tiana was embodied as an amphibian for 80% of the film! Disney/ Dreamworks have a lot to choose from if they wanted to develop a powerful and beautiful African princess. That's what little girls are being socialized to strive for: Power and Beauty. There is nothing wrong with that. I'd rather my girls fight to attain power and beauty over poverty and homeliness any day. So can we at least give them a variety of models that look like or similar to them to aspire to?

It's a shame that the first "African Princess" is going to be brought to us courtesy of the vestiges of 15th century colonization, and whose origin isn't African in the least. I think the child and her family who the story is based off of are from Wisconsin or Nebraska. I don't know... Wait. I just checked. They're from Virginia.


What is story intended to do for readers? What do you hope they get from it?

That's actually a hard question. Unlike blogging, I don't usually write fiction with an intent beyond storytelling. I guess I would like for the reader to find some commonality between themselves and Yaa...maybe even empathize with her. I hope that no matter who the reader is - a young adult or a parent reading with their child - will be able to glean meaningful lessons from the story. That they will reflect on the choices they made in their own youth, even impetuously, and find some space for forgiveness and tolerance for other people who are still discovering their way. There's not enough forgiveness in the world, I think. But most of all, I just want folks to have a really good time as they flip though these pages!