Handa’s Surprise. Eileen Browne. Illustrated by Eileen Browne. 1994. Walker Books Ltd. 24 pages.
“Handa’s Surpise” by Eileen Browne follows Handa, who’s part of the Luo tribe in south-west Kenya, on her journey to a neighbouring village. She has carefully chosen seven delicious fruit to surprise her friend Akeyo with and ponders along the way which one she will like the best. As Handa muses over each piece of fruit, however, a sneaky animal grabs it and before long her basket is empty. Luckily a goat accidentally bumps into a nearby tree and her basket is filled with what turns out to be Akeyo’s favourite fruit – tangerines! As ThisBoy has a mixed heritage it’s really important to me that he is exposed to a wide range of cultures and characters in books. With that in mind, I absolutely loved this story and after mentioning it to a few friends wasn’t surprised to find it’s a really popular one for teachers too.
The illustrations, also by Eileen Brown, are beautiful but unusual for this age group. The typical bold and bright colours have been replaced with softer watercolours and in doing so perfectly captures Handa’s hazy, hot journey. The Kenyan landscapes are wonderfully depicted as a mixture of gentle yellows and greens against a brilliant blue sky, while the objects below are outlined in white, suggestive of the hot sun beating down on everything below. The details are astounding from the grasshoppers hiding in the long grass and flies buzzing around the juicy fruits to the animals disappearing off into the distance on each page with their stolen prizes. The characters are also faithfully represented, wearing brightly coloured batik or kente cloth clothes and having hair styled in twists or braids.
It would be fair to say that ThisBoy was absolutely captivated by the story and insisted after we finished reading it the first time that we re-read it another two more times straight after. While he was familiar with some of the fruits (bananas, pineapples and oranges) there were plenty that he had never heard of before (mangoes, guavas, avocados and passion fruit). Luckily, while none of the animals are named throughout the story, there’s a handy guide at the back to help out (which I found really helpful – particularly for the antelope!). It’s since become a firm favourite at bedtime and is one that he requests the most, particularly as he likes to make the animal noises and pretend to eat the fruit.
About the Author
Eileen Browne is an author and illustrator, with more than forty published children’s books and is best known for Handa’s Surprise, which has become a picture book classic. Working as a teacher and youth worker in London in the 1980s, she realised how important it was for children to see themselves in the books they read and so started exploring diversity in children’s books.
Mum’s Score: 5 out of 5
The real success of this book is that it’s not a story about a different culture, rather it’s a story that just happens to be set in a different culture.
ThisBoy’s Score: 5 out of 5
He absolutely loves this story and is constantly asking “what’s that?” throughout, taking great pleasure in repeating the names of the fruit and animals along the way.