A Swahili Alphabet Book

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A Swahili Alphabet Book
Jambo Means hello
Image Credit: penguinrandomhouse.ca

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.

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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 every day. Here is a sample:

“Karibu (kah.ree.boo) 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!

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