Growing up in Ghana, as my friends and I sat around the front of the school in our brown and beige uniforms waiting for our parents to pick us up, our conversations would inevitably turn towards our favorite characters in books: The Wakefield Twins from Sweet Valley High and the girls from Babysitters Club. We would discuss what we would wear to prom one day, the "pumps" we would buy at our next visit to the mall, and the babysitting empire we planned to build, just like Maryanne and Kristy.
We were dreamy young girls sweating in Accra's afternoon heat, chatting a mile a minute about dreams which were formed from fragments of a world very far removed from our own. The reality was that we would never have a prom, we not only had never seen "pumps" but we didn't even know what they were. In those days, there were no malls in Accra and the concept of babysitting did not exist--the extended family played that role.
This experience demonstrated to me the power of stories to shape who we are. I, like generations of Africans, grew up and continue to grow up without access to books that represent our own stories, cultures, and realities.
To be sure, it is great to be exposed to other cultures and be inspired by them. But it is dangerous if this becomes your only window into the world as a growing child. Reading about characters that look and live like you and your family grounds you in who you are and gives you permission to take pride in your culture and where you are from.
The same is true for half of all American children under five who, according to the US Census Bureau, belong to a racial or ethnic minority. Despite this changing American demographic the Cooperative Children's Book Center in Wisconsin recently found that only 5 percent of the fiction books they receive have significant Asian, African American or Latino content.
Bestselling novelist Junot Diaz once wrote, "If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn't see myself reflected at all. I was like, 'Is there something wrong with me that a whole society seems to think that people like me don't exist?'"
So as a child growing up in Ghana I would feed off the cultures I saw presented in my books, unconsciously devaluing my own. I would work up my imagination to visualize winter wonderland Christmases and their freezing beauty. I spoke and wrote American slang that I picked up from my books often confusing my teachers with my fervent insistence that my diction was correct - "I read it in a book!" Perhaps most troubling, was the fact that as a child I did not have a desire for a future in my own homeland, I dreamed of having my own apartment in River Heights USA, Nancy Drew's hometown.
While the issue of what content African children consume involves strong moral, cultural and identity considerations, this is also about economics, growth and business opportunities on the continent. African children deserve to see themselves and their cultures in the books they read and we can build a successful industry in making this a reality. You don't have to look far for proof: Disney's African-based story, the Lion King, has grossed $952 million worldwide.
Africa has some of the world's fastest growing economies, with about a third of the continent's 54 countries reporting more than 6% GDP growth. This in turn is leading to a rapid expansion of middle class families who aspire to see their children educated and succeed in life. Central to achieving their social, political and economic goals is the need to encourage a new generation of children to develop strong literacy skills and a love of reading. This growing generation wants stories which reflect their own lives and dreams. But so far this market for African children's books has been relatively untapped
Over the last few decades the Asian market has provided ample evidence of how children's book sales can rise in parallel with economic advancement. The children's book industry in India is worth $600 million. Asia is now one of the leading regions for sales of printed children's books and according to Publisher's Weekly 'the new opportunities created by interactive e-books, growing affluence and the increasing importance placed on preschool and kindergarten education' has seen a fast growth in children and young adult titles including manga and homegrown picture books.
In Africa too, there has long been a demand from adults for culturally relevant stories as is testified by the worldwide success of Chinua Achebe and the more recent award-ladened books of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and No Violet Bulawayo. Even in the unrecognized republic of Somaliland readers flocked to a book fair this summer to pay tribute to Hadraawi, their national poet.
So the task is now to build a successful children's literature market in Africa - which is home to some of the world's greatest storytelling traditions. I realized this for myself while attending college in US (yes, my childhood U.S. dream came true) and I returned to Ghana to help found Golden Baobab. Our annual prize for children's literature is now in its 5th year and has inspired the creation of high quality, culturally relevant content by African writers and illustrators for African children.
But a key for future success will be finding ways to get the books in the hands of children. African publishers have in the past often been plagued by problems in distributing printed books across the continent. Thankfully work on this has already started, from WorldReader's circulation of Kindles for children to programs serializing short fiction on mobile phones using Mxit. From Nollywood movies to border-crossing Afropop, other sectors of the cultural and entertainment industries in Africa have already demonstrated that there is a substantial market for African content if you can find ways to distribute it.
Kenya's mobile entertainment market is estimated by some analysts to be worth $165 million this year with young consumers demanding locally produced music content on mobile phone apps. Nigeria's booming movie industry grew out of a voracious demand for African content. It now produces between 500-1000 movies a year in a $250 million industry selling not just to a Nigerian audience but to a world-wide diaspora audience of 169 million Africans.
The potential market for African children's books is just as large. Our hope is that 10 years from now anyone will be able to find beautiful African children's literature anywhere in the world. We want characters from our stories to become household names that merchandisers and multimedia developers recreate for years to come and to inspire generations of African children and the future of the continent.