I must say that I have enjoyed my "summer vacation" through middle grade and YA literature.
Yesterday, I picked up the book, no laughter here by Rita Williams-Garcia. I decided to do something I hadn't done in a while - read aloud with my 10 and 12 year old daughters. It was a good thing I did.
This tender age is filled with wonder and questions, friendship and laughter, crushes and questions. In the summer before fifth grade (exactly where my 10 year old is right now) something changed between Akilah (the protagonist) and her friend Victoria.
My daughter loves to hang out with her friends from school and church. Through the wonders of modern technology, like when this book was set, they were able to keep in touch through vacation trips. The girls in this book promised to write each other across the Atlantic as Victoria (Queen Victoria, according to her) traveled to her family's ancestral village in Nigeria to undergo a rite-of-passage.
Like all girls with a vivid imagination, the girls wondered what that rite would be. Victoria and Akilah imagined that this would be her receiving her queenly name or some other mystical thing. Akilah's parents had performed an infant naming ceremony for her and like many displaced Africans in America, mythologized many customs and created others in hopes of connecting with lost West African roots.
This summer, though, was different. It was very late when Victoria came back and the girls were not able to do those back-to-school activities like anticipate their new teacher, go supply shopping, and do the all-important back-to-school outfit comparison.
Akilah noticed the differences in her friend and used her wit and friendship to uncover from her dearest friend what made her so sad and silent.
This tender story unfolds in Akilah's voice and her wrestling with being the only child, having a crush, "becoming a woman" and standing up for those without a voice.
My 12 year old connected with the empowered writer in Akilah and recently took to the pen to right a wrong.
The author's note at the end of the book invites not only action for the millions of girls undergoing an ancient ritual, but helps parents have a tender conversation about a woman's body and who actually "owns" it.
I have had conversations with my daughters their entire lives about their bodies, giving them the proper names for their genitalia and empowered them to make decisions for their personal selves. In so doing, I hope that I have given them the tools they will need as they mature in a society (both American and African) that tends to otherize, control, and exert power over the female form.
This book is highly recommended for 5th grade and above. The topic itself can help mothers and daughters have that important conversation about themselves. In the case of the ones who have undergone FGM (female genital mutilation), it could help them know they are not alone and even though they have undergone the ritual, they have a tool at their disposal to make a change for the future generations.
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