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Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

A Swahili Alphabet Book


Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book
By Muriel Feelings (author) and Tom Feelings (illustrator)
Ages: 3 and Up

With no Q and X sounds, there are only 24 letters in the Swahili alphabet (unlike the English language). And 45 million people speak it. These facts in the author’s introductory note get my kids excited almost immediately. However, I keep returning to the image of the African girl on the front cover with a big smile and wide open arms towards the sky.


After the introduction, we move through the series of letters—24 words, one for each letter. The pronunciation key and meaning are also added for each word. But it does not end here. A couple of things prove why this book is a treasure trove. First, a small paragraph in simple language elaborates on the word and unveils fascinating cultural details. Secondly, stunning black-and-white sketches beautifully illustrate the textual content on every page. The chosen words are also very pragmatic and everyday. Here is a sample:

karibu ( means welcome
A caller says, Hodi? which means May I come in? The reply is always Karibu, whether it is a relative, friend or stranger.”


We also learn the Swahili words for father, mother, food, elephant, mango and friend, to name a few. The author mentions in the beginning that she hopes this book inspires children of African ancestry to learn and speak Swahili, one step at a time. The last page details the art process by Tom Feelings. A map of Africa marks the countries where Swahili is spoken.


In our case, this alphabet book keeps even my second grader interested and enthusiastic all through. In the end, we quiz each other and have fun trying to string words in meaningful ways. Ultimately, this well-rounded book offers us a refreshing context for the ABCs.
Writing an alphabet book is not an easy task. It requires extreme creativity and simplicity, and the combination can be very challenging . However Muriel Feelings has done a really great job at this. There is also a counting counterpart by the same team called “Moja Means One.” Both books are Caldecott Honor winners.


“Learning a language opens up many things to us. With new words come new ideas and an understanding of the people and environment which created the language,” says Muriel Feelings. That is precisely why I find this book to be such a joy!



© 2012 – 2013, Meera Sriram. All rights reserved.

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Meera Sriram has been reviewing and recommending diverse children’s literature for about ten years now. She loves to pass on a title or an author to a friend (or a stranger, for that matter). Picture books particularly appeal to the inner child in her. She moved to the U.S. at the turn of the millennium from India. After graduate studies and a brief stint as an electrical engineer, she decided to express herself in other creative ways, primarily through writing. She has co-authored four books for children, all published in India. Her writing interests include people and cultures, nature, and life’s everyday moments. She also runs an early literacy program for toddlers and preschoolers in her neighboring communities. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband and two kids. Curling up to read a good book with her children is something she looks forward to every day. She constantly fantasizes about a world with no boundaries over hot chai, to help her stay warm in foggy Northern California. More at

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsInCultureParent | Favorite Multicultural Children’s Books of 2012 – Old and New   |  Thursday, 03 January 2013 at 5:46 am

    […] “A Swahili Alphabet Book” […]

  2. CommentsInCultureParent | Ten Reasons Parents Should Read Multicultural Books to Kids   |  Friday, 15 February 2013 at 1:26 pm

    […] A language (or linguistic diversity) is a tangible form of realizing cultural differences.  Picture book stories set in a cultural backdrop often scatter words in the affiliated language. This is both fun and fascinating for kids. […]

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