African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History by Tracey Baptiste,  illustrated by Hillary D. Wilson

African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History by Tracey Baptiste,  illustrated by Hillary D. Wilson. Algonquin Young Readers, 2021. 9781616209001

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: ARC (publication date: 10/19/21)

What did you like about the book?  Tracey Baptiste takes on a formidable task with this book: presenting the history of 10 influential Africans who lived before the beginning of the forced exodus of enslavement. She includes an array of accomplished Africans, both men and women, from rulers like Menes, Amanirenas, and Queen Idia, to creative geniuses such as Imhotep, Aesop, and Terence. An introduction from Baptiste discusses the need for students to reconsider what they know about early African history, even looking at the map of Africa with new eyes to see that its land mass is the equivalent of the United States, China, India and much of western Europe combined. The book proceeds chronologically, alternating between short sections that describe the time period and setting and then leading to a biographical essay about each icon. Baptiste’s muscular prose is compelling and the majority of the figures will be new to readers. Even the ones I had heard of (Aesop and Hannibal, for example) were put into a historical context that refreshed my interest. Hillary Wilson has included full-page, full-color portraits of each of the subjects that look as though they are painted with oils (visible brush strokes and glowing highlights), situating them in geographically-appropriate setting. Back matter includes source notes for each chapter, a bibliography for further reading, and a note indicating that the published version will include an index. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? Although Baptiste relays the information in the book as established fact, the reality is that much of what she is presenting is ancient history and thus necessarily involves conjecture. For example, looking at her source for the Menes section (Encyclopedia Britannica) reveals more uncertainty than Baptiste conveys. Similarly the paintings should be presented as Wilson’s imagined vision of the icons and readers should know what sources she consulted to design the costumes, jewelry, and weapons we see. The ARC I read may not be the final version, but I hope that the finished book will include more maps and diagrams. Baptiste has to resort to describing Hannibal’s route to Rome and the location of both Carthage and Timbuktu, instead of directing readers to a map.  Young readers would be more likely to study a photograph or diagram of Tin Hanan’s burial site rather than reading through a lengthy paragraph.  

To whom would you recommend this book?  Readers in grades 5-8 interested in African history or ancient history generally. Although the stated target age group is grades 3-7, I thought the vocabulary and expected background knowledge would make middle graders a more realistic group.

Who should buy this book? Middle schools and public libraries. 

Where would you shelve it? Either 960.099 or in a collective biography section

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: September 2, 2021

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