Too Small Tola by award-winning author, Atinuke and illustrator, Onyinye Iwu is a trio of stories about the triumphs and small-small troubles of Tola and her family in Lagos, Nigeria. Tola lives with her bossy gran, Grandmommy, her studious sister, Moji and her sporty brother, Dapo in a run-down, one-room apartment in the city. The chapter book for ages 7-9 is longlisted for the 2021 Jhalak Prize which was founded in 2017 to celebrate the work of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) writers in the UK. The exciting news is that the prize established categories to award literature for children and young adults this year. Too Small Tola showcases grey-scale illustrations that capture the joys and hardships of little Tola, her family and her neighbors. Although she shares a sleeping section with her siblings in the sweltering heat, and empty taps mean that she has to queue up to fill the jerry cans with bathing water before school, Tola’s story always ends with a smile.
In the first chapter, named after our awesome protagonist, Tola is tasked with accompanying Grandmommy to the market. Tola is very good at math and that’s a special skill that her gran requires. Tola has misgivings because it’s not her usual job; however, she sees that Moji is too busy studying to help (although not too busy to tease her about being “too small” for the errand). In her place, she thinks Dapo would make a great shopping assistant:
Dapo is fast. He could reach the market faster than an okada taxi. But through the open window, carried on air as hot as pepper soup, come the sounds of boys playing football.
In the end, Tola has no choice but to be Grandmommy’s helper and the reader follows them on a sensuous shopping trip spree filled with the smells and sounds of greater Lagos. Upon their return, Tola is tired but realises that the trip was not all bad when she recounts it for a jealous Moji and Dapo. Tola is sure to include every delicious detail about stopping for soft drinks, doughnuts, and ice cream! Tola may have had an exhausting start to her day but she certainly has the last laugh.
In the second chapter, Tola accidentally comes face-to-face with one of the Ododi brothers, notorious neighbourhood bullies, at the community water pump. “Nobody messes with the Ododi brothers”. When the bully makes fun of Tola in front of the women queuing with their jerry cans, an older lady named Mrs. Shaky-Shaky trips him up. As the Ododi boy bunches his fists, Tola jumps in front of her protector; afraid but brave.
At that moment, the community realises that perhaps they should mess with the Ododi brothers whenever the Ododi brothers mess with them. Several women step out from their places in the line to stand beside Tola and Mrs. Shaky-Shaky and the Ododi bully runs away!
The third chapter, which I will leave you to discover for yourself, is just as delightful. Tola and Dapo each bring their best talents to the table and work together to save their community’s all-important Easter and Eid celebration.
One of my favourite things about Too Small Tola is Atinuke’s beautiful use of language throughout the stories. Great visuals such as “okada taxi” and “hot as pepper soup” combined with the repetition and rhythm make this an endearing collection of stories that will open readers up to Too Small Tola‘s big-big world. It’s a fantastic way to learn more about Nigeria and its people.
You can read another review of Atinuke’s books: Africa, Amazing Africa: Country by Country.
Below is a video of Atinuke reading Too Small Tola for the Jhalak Prize:
*Review copy of Too Small Tola kindly provided by the publisher.
Written by Atinuke
Illustrated by Oyinye Iwu
Candlewick Press, 2021
Page count: 96
Lebohang Masango is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology, an award-winning children’s author and poet. Her debut, Mpumi’s Magic Beads is translated in all 11 official South African languages and has been awarded a South African Literature Award, among others. Her other titles include Grow to be Great: Awesome African Achievers, co-authored with Dr Judy Dlamini, and Mpumi and Jabu’s Magical Day, co-authored with Professor Claudine Storbeck. She tweets at @lebohangwrites.