No, seriously: Is ‘Sally and the Butterfly’ Ghana’s first choose-your-own-adventure book for kids? I don’t know. But if I did, it was totally by mistake, and pretty frikkin’ awesome!
The story of how ‘Sally and the Butterfly’ (SATB) came into existence is one that is really special to me. A little over a year ago, the kids and I were reading the same stories again and again at bed time. Everyone had their favorite books and every night there was a prizefight about who would get to read what book or what story book should be read. I felt like Picard at the helm of a Klingon battle ship navigating our way along the Romulan border. It was nerve-wracking and exhausting!
Finally, I decided to draw on an experience from childhood to solve the problem: we would all tell toli in the evenings. I don’t know if there is an official definition of toli, but at its essence it is simply act of story-telling using the height of one’s imagination – sort of like tall tales in American folklore. I would introduce the beginning of the story and give each child 3-5 minutes to tell everyone how they think the story should end. Our heroine’s name was Salimah, or Sally for short.
Stone loves trains, so Sally’s town has a train depot.
Aya loves butterflies.
Nadjah loves adventure, so she introduced several dangerous scenarios for Sally to overcome.
Liya was only just 3 at the time, so she would just repeat everything that was said.
We did this every night for about a month until some holiday or trip got in the way (I don’t remember) and then we stopped. Sadly, we don’t even do story-time at bedtime anymore because the kids do homework until about 8pm and then have to have baths and rush to bed. Marshall used to sit in the adjoining room listening to the stories and eventually suggested that I turn it into a book. I didn’t see how it would work, so I muttered something about “considering it” and then tabled it for months. I finally started writing a linear version of the story and sent portions of it to Nana Darkoa (BFFFL) so she could keep me on task. She loved it, which is why my BFFFL encouraged me to submit it to Golden Baobab for their prize in children’s literature this year. I sent it without proofing or formatting it properly. It was an absolute MESS.
Secretly, I was hoping I wouldn’t win the prize and I think I subconsciously sabotaged my own efforts. I read something about Gold Baobab owning the rights to the book or something-something and I’m too protective over my work to just let any ol’ body own it. My books are my babies, conceived and birthed from the womb of my imagination!
In the middle of writing SATB, I gave up trying to force a linear progression of Sally’s adventures and began writing alternate endings for each chapter. The book is only 9,887 words long, but it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever written or cobbled together. Every time I changed the font size the page numbers would be displaced and I’d have to figure out where poor Sally was supposed to be going next! But a year and some change later, it was done.
As I said before, story-telling is a strong African tradition, not just a Ghanaian one. Our history and traditions were handed down by oral convention before the European colonial invasion. (At least the Arabs didn’t destroy our griot societies when they brought written Arabic to West Africa!) I want to encourage that practice in young readers, so the end of the book has a special surprise for those who happen upon a copy of SATB. Each reader has the chance to choose their own ending for Sally or any of the other characters in the book if they didn’t like the way it ended!
The book was illustrated by Ogidi Laja who is based in Nigeria. I wanted every creative aspect of the book to be touched by an African, and though neither he nor I had attempted anything of this sort before, we muddled through it and got it done. Ogidi is a comic book artist, and he struggled to draw Sally’s cornrows. We fought about her wearing a hat for weeks, but I wanted there to be no doubt that this was a story about a brown girl somewhere on the continent that any boy/girl on the continent could see something of themselves in. (SATB was edited by 13 year old Arianna Murray who has roots in North Carolina…which is basically Africa with constant supplies of water and electricity.)
I hope parents and kids will enjoy this new piece of kid adventure literature and share their own versions of Salimah’s story with their friends!