Picture Book Review: Fatou and the Kora by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

Fatou and the KoraFatou and the Kora: A Modern West African Fairy Tale written by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Elena Tommasi Ferronni

From Goodreads: Fatou and the Kora is a modern West African fairy tale set in Dakar, Senegal. Fatou, a young Senegalese girl, resides in a region where it is thought by many that the kora, or the African harp, is an instrument that is not to be played by girls. Fatou follows her instinct and discovers a generational gift within herself, while also teaching her father an unexpected lesson.

The book is lushly illustrated and heavy with symbolism. After reading through it the first time I came away feeling it really and truly was a modern fairy tale. It had the same qualities of being both a good story and a story with a lesson and, combined with the illustrations, an invitation to revisit it after chewing on it for awhile.

Fatou is a quiet, thoughtful little girl. The rich illustrations that introduce the story show the reader her world and how she sees it. It’s peopled with family and full of vibrant animals and scenery. Fatou spends much of her time observing all that is around her and while observing she discovers the beauty of the kora.

It calls to her and reminds her of her mother when she was pregnant and of Yemaya, a Yoruba goddess. Unfortunately the kora is reserved for men, as emphasized the by the picture of Fatou’s father playing it with his father, then grandfather, and great-grandfather nested inside the body of the kora, each playing the instrument that has been passed down the generations. But when Fatou reflects on it, the kora is drawn as Fatou sees it and you can’t help but agree with her interpretation. Fatou begins to sneak her father’s kora out into the forest to practice everyday after lunch. Her father is dozing and won’t notice she or the kora are gone. Her mother does, however, notice and keeps Fatou’s secret. As in all fairy tales the deception is found out, but with the help of the natural world Fatou has been watching all her life, her father comes to see that Fatou not only has talent, but also belongs to the music and the instrument.

For what it’s worth the book reminds me of Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle in that it’s about a girl who takes up an instrument that is traditionally played by men. The two stories are actually very different, but you could certainly pair them up to discuss breaking out of gender expectations and limitations. For American audiences this would also make an excellent jumping off point for looking at Senegalese (and Yoruba) culture as well as West African history and gender roles and expectations in different cultures. It also shows what appears to be an average family, meaning it gets away from that narrative that everyone in Africa is destitute and pitiful.

One final thought, I love how the book begins “In the West African city of Dakar, not so long ago- in a land once compose of kingdoms and empires that is now known as modern Senegal…”. It’s such a perfect and subtle nod to the fact that “Senegal” is a European and colonial construct and not what once was. It’s also so enticing to hear about kingdoms and empires. It will make readers want to discover more about that. Highly recommend this title. Particularly important if your school or class does a generic Africa unit.