For ages 9+
If you’re anything like me, you adore reading middle grade books that transport you into another world, to experience life in someone’s shoes living in another country and culture. Some of my recent favourite own voices books like this by middle grade books include Kereen Getten's ‘When Life Gives You Mangoes’ (Jamaica), Nizrana Farook's ‘The Boy Who Met a Whale’ (Sri Lanka), Efua Traoré's ‘The Children of the Quicksands’ (Nigeria), and Kelly Yang's ‘Front Desk’ series (China-USA).
I've really enjoyed every kids book I've read that's set in Nigeria and I’m seeing more and more being published here in the UK, and I’m fully signed up! Do you think I could contain myself when I found out about another new debut author with Chicken House, Sabine Adeyinka published her new middle grade last month, set in a Nigerian girls boarding school ‘Jummy at the River School’?! It also made the Bookseller Association’s Independent Bookshops ‘book of the month’ too. Congratulations Sabine!
About the story
The story begins with Jumoke ‘Jummy’ Afolabi at her home in Nigeria. She lives in a flat with her family and is waiting eagerly to hear whether she passed the entrance exam to get into the finest secondary school for girls in Southern Nigeria - River School. Her upstairs neighbour, Owolabi, already heard he got into Kingswill College, the boys secondary school near to River School. We meet Caro, Jummy’s best friend. Caro and her larger family live in the staff quarters, share facilities with other staff families, and don’t have running water in their accommodation like Jummy. In spite of their societal differences the two girls are inseparable. Caro seems to be clever, popular, kind and hardworking. Jummy is fun, but seems to take her situation in life somewhat for granted and from the start seems rather naive about her behaviour. For example, if Jummy gets into ‘hot soup’ at school, she hopes Caro will help her with her lines to ease the burden of her punishment. Jummy is not as self-reliant as she should be, always going to others for help if she can’t be bothered to do something herself or she finds it too tricky. This is a running theme throughout the book, the differences in class and society and how prejudices affect the dynamics at home and school.
Ok, so Jummy gets the place and this is her first experience of boarding school. The thing about boarding schools is that it conjures up all sorts of thoughts depending on whether you went there or not. I did… from 6 years old until I was 17, and this book, I can tell you, is a pretty accurate tale of life in a girls boarding school, particularly a more strict and traditional one, as per my experience. It was so nostalgic to relive these experiences through Jummy’s adventures, except in her case there’s the different climate - (the heat!), flora and fauna, crocodiles, scorpions, Nigerian food (e.g. the much coveted agbalumo fruit - see link below) and cultural dress. Some things remain the same though… cramped dorms, not so glamorous facilities, midnight feasts, revered and feared prefects, competition between houses, the bullies, weekend treats, the tuck shop, sporting events and debating matches, putting on plays…. Not to mention the dreaded matron! We used to call ours Mrs Alcoholic - eek!
Whereas my school houses were either named after Empire-type heroes: Drake, Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington, or, Saints…the River House houses are named after the magnificent six African rivers. Jummy finds herself in Nile House, rather the underdog house to the ever achieving Limpopo house.
On the whole Jummy’s new 1st form classmates and dorm-mates are a good bunch! It’s so fun going through the first few chapters meeting all the characters… Tope, Gemini, Flanky (an English girl), Bukky (efiko student!). The exception to this happy new beginning is another Form One new girl, Bolaji Oni. Bolaji is the daughter of a very wealthy family whose business ‘Redbrick Bakery’ is a big supplier to the school. This gives Bolaji a significant unfair balance of power and as a result her behaviour is cringingly spoilt and entitled. Throughout the story, just when you think Bolaji can’t behave any worse, more of her dastardly deeds come to light!
Remember I mentioned Caro earlier? Well Jummy misses her so much at school. She knows how clever and talented she is and the more time she spends at River School, the more she feels it’d be the perfect place for Caro to shine… and to her shock and surprise one day she sees her arrive at the school, not as a student, but working for Matron… and doing extra ‘chores’ for none other than Bolaji! A mixture of sheer ecstasy at being able to be near her best friend and sheer panic at not being able to mix with her because she is one of the serving staff is absolutely torture. Together with her friends, Jummy manages to sneak Caro away from her duties time and again until one day her friends get to see Caro dance and that’s it… a plan hatches to get the headmistress, Princey, to get to see Caro in action with the hope that a scholarship will be awarded to her. Lots of edge-of-the seat plans to fool Matron, the prefects and more are put into action by Jummy and her loyal friends. Will Caro get to play Moremi, the Great Warrior and Queen of the Yoruba in her surprise appearance in the school play without Bolaji interfering? By the way, Caro’s plight is only one of the storylines in this book bursting with plots! I hope you’re keeping up?
Half way through the book Jumoke does actually start to question whether perhaps she might be acting as entitled as Bolaji, or perhaps she acting rather above herself at times. After this rather sobering epiphany, she’s determined to change her ways. Form One teacher and the always so beautifully dressed, Mrs Folawiyo, is intrigued one day as a discussion along these lines in class breaks out as to whether there should be a more fairer admission process for less privileged children to be able to also attend River School. It turns out Jummy's neighbour Owolabi feels strongly about this too, once Jummy had mentioned it to him on a social. This was then debated at a joint school debating team match, which in a turnaround moment, the motion was changed at the last minute to: ‘Shouldn’t all education be free?’
All the girls at River School are very focused and competitive especially when it’s gaining as many house points through the term to be the winning house! One of the big opportunities for Nile House to beat their major rival Limpopo House is the Harmattan Games. Luckily one of the Nile House prefects, Ngozi, is incredible at sport, soon spies how quickly Jummy sprints around the school on her adventures, and although Jummy has rather lazy attitude, manages to coach her to be part of the running team - much to Jummy’s surprise! The excitement builds for the Harmattan Games throughout the book.
There are so many wonderful giggle moments in the book too. One of my absolute favourites is when it is prefect Ngozi’s turn to say prayers in the dining hall, whilst the children go silent and close their eyes. She bellows: ‘Plus God, minus Devil!’ ‘Amen’ everyone roars with glee. Even the somewhat strict (but endearing) Senior Funmi (not quite as feared as Senior Moradeke) sheds a tear of joy.
Other moments of pure joy throughout the book include the frequent bursts of chanting by the girls, whether they’re sad, happy, rallying or angry, for example, one of the most touching…
“What would it look like
If all of us came together
To help Caro succeed!”
Throughout the book the reader is treated to a rich tapestry of Nigerian culture, whether with use of occasional Yoruba language words, the food, history, beautifully vivid descriptions of the school grounds (flowers, Shine-Shine river, reptiles and insects, school buildings) or dress. One of the wonderful moments in the book happens when the children celebrate ‘cultural day’. They wear clothing to represent their individuality: Jummy’s dress was handmade by her Auntie Heather, a beautiful emerald-green and black dress made from Ankara fabric; Michellle’s dress blue and red Adire fabric; Flanky wore Ankara pedal pushers and white top (Nigerian on the bottom and English on the top, she explains); Bolaji and her gang all dressed in matching purple lace as if they were at a wedding - which took so long to get ready in order to outdo everyone that they missed the feast!
What a lot to pack into the first half term at boarding school, and a what a wonderful debut middle grade novel! I join in wholeheartedly with the girls of River School when I say “Up Form One O”!! Can’t wait for more from Adeyinka. I wouldn’t mind reading more of Jummy’s adventures too…
Here are some useful links as visual and educational references for some of the Nigerian dress and food featured in the book:
Agbalumo (African Star Apple) https://www.kitchenbutterfly.com/2018/a-visual-botanical-guide-to-varieties-of-agbalumo/
Adire fabric https://www.adireafricantextiles.com
Learn more about Nigeria https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/geography/countries/article/nigeria
About the creators
Sabine Adeyinka (author)
Sabine Adeyinka was born in England to a Nigerian dad and Jamaican mum. She grew up in Nigeria where she spent the most memorable time in boarding school from the age of eleven. As a young girl, she loved reading novels about boarding schools from around the world and longed to tell the stories of her own exciting experience. Sabine’s favourite pastime is writing stories about memories of the landscape, food and people of her childhood. She now lives in London with her husband and two children.
Hanako Clulow (illustrator)
Hanako studied for a degree in Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before her passion for art re-emerged and led her to pursue a life as an illustrator. She started off her career at several London markets selling her illustration prints, t-shirts and greeting cards before she signed with illustration agency Pickled ink.
After becoming a mother of two children in Japan, she and her family moved to New Zealand in 2014. She now works from home in Titirangi in Auckland. Her clients include Caterpillar Books, 360 Degrees, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, Oxford University Press, Benesse Holdings and Ronshin.
Hanako enjoys drawing simple and bold character designs that appeal to children. Her projects have ranged from board books to illustrated non-fiction books and children’s clothing.
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Publication date: 6 January 2022
Format: Kindle e-book
Publication date: 6 January 2022
Publication date: 6 January 2022
If you would like to read more brilliant middle grade books set in Nigeria, I 100% recommend:
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