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Ifeoma Onyefulu Biography (1959-) - Sidelights

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Ifeoma Onyefulu is a Nigerian expatriate living in England who has successfully introduced English-speaking audiences to the range and variety of village life in her homeland through her picture books for young readers. Illustrated with her own photographs, Onyefulu's books have been praised as useful additions to classroom libraries for the lessons they teach about the universality of some experiences, as well as for offering a rarely seen depiction of African village life. The brightly colored photographs she includes in books such as A Is for Africa, Grandfather's Work: A Traditional Healer in Nigeria, and A Triangle for Adaora: An African Book of Shapes evoke the important relationships between the people in her stories and also illustrate the customs and realities of everyday life in contemporary Africa.The first of Onyefulu's concept books, A Is for Africa provides an overview of Nigerian village life while also reviewing the alphabet for young English speakers. Chris Powling, writing in Books for Keeps, compared the visual impact of A Is for Africa to "stepping from a darkened room straight into noon sunshine, so bright and needle-sharp are the author's photographs." Onyefulu selects traditional, African objects and artifacts to exemplify each letter, observed Roger Sutton, the critic adding in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, that in A Is for Africa such objects "are simply explained and provide good material for a lapsitting visit."

Like A Is for Africa, the counting book Emeka's Gift contains a brightly lit visual tribute to Nigerian village life that some critics have found enchanting. The simple story finds a young boy setting off to buy his grandmother a birthday gift. Along the way to the market Emeka encounters two friends and three women; having reached his destination, he finds four brooms, five hats, and so forth up to ten, but despairs because he does not have enough money to buy any of the items he sees. He goes to his grandmother and tells her what happened, only to be told that he himself is the best gift she could ever receive. Emeka's Gift was praised as "a wonderful multidimensional story with universal appeal" by Barbara Osborne Williams in School Library Journal. In Booklist Mary Harris Veeder wrote that Onyefulu's book succeeds in its aim of teaching Western children about Nigerian life because the "nice balance between difference and sameness" allows American children to relate to scenes such as of children playing even if they don't recognize the rules of the game. A reviewer for Junior Bookshelf praised Onyefulu for avoiding sentimentality in the telling of her story, displaying instead "honest observation and understanding." The result is "an outstanding counting book."

Other simple math concepts are explored in A Triangle for Adaora, which School Library Journal contributor Tammy K. Baggett dubbed "a unique approach to learning about shapes." Onyefulu's story focuses on the quest of two young children, Ugo and his cousin Adaora, to find a triangle shape somewhere in their small village. Of course, the triangle is the last shape they encounter: circles, squares, rectangles, and diamonds are encountered, hidden in the everyday objects all around them. Booklist contributor Susan Dove Lempke praised the book's "lush color photographs" and noted that A Triangle for Adaora successfully doubles as "a concept book and . . . an early social studies book."

Sarah Mear, a reviewer for School Librarian, described Chidi Only Likes Blue as "a book of colours with a difference." In this story, narrator Nneka introduces readers to a spectrum of colors available in her Nigerian village while trying to convince her brother Chidi that blue—his favorite—is not the only color of beauty. Praising the book as "a quality non-fiction text," Roy Blatchford added in his Books for Keeps review that Chidi Only Likes Blue "achieves that singular aim of fiction: allowing the reader to climb inside a character's skin and see life from her point of view." Praising the author's characteristic deeply hued photographs, Elizabeth Bush wrote that young readers "will certainly be charmed by the luminous range of tones that sets Nneka's world aglow" in her review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.


In addition to concept books, Onyefulu has created several highly praised books that detail specific aspects of African village life as seen from a child's perspective. Ebele's Favourite explains ten games commonly played by children in Nigeria, and also includes detailed directions for interested readers. In Ogbo: Sharing Life in an African Village she tells the story of Nigerian age-sets through the eyes of six-year-old Obioma. An ogbo, or age-set, is a tradition practiced by some Nigerian villages in which each person is grouped together with all those born within a few years of each other. As each ogbo ages its members are given different responsibilities in service to the community. "As each group is shown working and playing together, readers get a firsthand look at customs" common to Nigerian villagers, noted Loretta Kreider Andrews in School Library Journal. Obioma's mother's ogbo ensures the river is kept free of litter; her father's age-set votes on how to get electricity to the village; her uncle's builds houses for those who cannot afford to build their own. "Keep this title in mind when Kwanzaa next comes around or any time you want a little lesson in cooperation," advised Bush in her review of Ogbo for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.

Onyefulu's book Grandfather's Work: A Traditional Healer in Nigeria introduces the variety of work available to Nigerian villagers, including doctor, lawyer, and artisan, while also taking a close look at the narrator's grandfather's work as a healer. Calling the study of native healing "fascinating," Christine A. Moesch added in the School Library Journal that Grandfather's Work leaves "readers hungry for more information on the use of various herbs and roots in healing." An author's note at the end explains that modern Western researchers have investigated the use of some of the traditional herbs grandfather uses and found evidence for their healing properties. "With its possibilities for many cross-curricular uses, the book is a natural for the classroom," concluded Maeve Visser Knoth in Horn Book. Through books such as Here Comes Our Bride! An African Wedding Story and Saying Good-bye: A Special Farewell to Mama Nkwelle Onyefulu illustrates the universality of many human customs, including courtship, marriage, and death. Saying Good-bye was Onyefulu's way of honoring the passing of her grandmother, a Nigerian dancer and the matriarch of her village, at 102 years of age. Narrated by Onyefulu's youngest son, Ikenna, the book follows the two-week ritual celebration of the deceased woman's life, and, according to Horn Book reviewer Anita L. Burkam, serves as "a valuable cross-cultural resource" while also "providing natural explanations of customs that may seem strange to Westerners." A young boy named Ekinadose provides young readers with a window onto a different African tradition in Here Comes Our Bride!, as he explains the visits, gift-giving, and other activities surrounding a young couple who have both a traditional ceremony and a church wedding. "Kids will enjoy learning about the Nigerian ritual while they recognize the universal excitement of wedding pagentry" and family festivities, noted Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman, while in Horn Book Kitty Flynn commended Onyefulu for prefacing Here Comes the Bride! with "a helpful introduction outlining the customs" involving the families of the bride and groom.


Onyefulu once told Something about the Author: "I love people very much, and having grown up in Nigeria where one is never alone, this type of hunger for company comes naturally. Therefore, my interest in people has increased since I left my country." Noting her love of photography, she added that it has been important to her to "document . . . the everyday life of people, especially Africans, as we have been portrayed by the media as poor people, constantly in need of the West for everything." She decided to create her first book, A Is for Africa, "in order to show the African way of life not often seen in the West and in children's books."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, August, 1993, p. 2067; June 1-15, 1995, Mary Harris Veeder, review of Emeka's Gift, p. 1779; April 15, 1996, p. 1444; September 15, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Chidi Only Likes Blue, p. 243; March 1, 2001, Susan Dove Lempke, review of A Triangle for Adaora: An African Book of Shapes, p. 1284; May 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Saying Good-bye: A Special Farewell to Mama Nkwelle, p. 1687; September 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Here Comes Our Bride! An African Wedding Story, p. 128.

Books for Keeps, September, 1993, Chris Powling, review of A Is for Africa, p. 40; November, 1997, Roy Blatchford, review of Chidi Only Likes Blue, p. 24.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1994, Roger Sutton, review of A Is for Africa, pp. 19-20; April, 1996, Elizabeth Bush, review of Ogbo, pp. 274-275; November, 1997, Elizabeth Bush, review of Chidi Only Likes Blue, p. 95.

Horn Book, September, 1993, p. 627; January-February, 1999, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Grandfather's Work, pp. 83-84; January, 1999, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Grandfather's Work, p. 83; July, 2001, Anita L. Burkam, review of Saying Good-bye, p. 474; September-October, 2004, Kitty Flynn, review of Here Comes Our Bride!, p. 607.

Junior Bookshelf, August, 1995, review of Emeka's Gift, p. 130.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1999, p. 1077.

Library Talk, November, 1993, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1993, p. 75.

School Librarian, November, 1993, p. 150; November, 1997, Sarah Mear, review of Chidi Only Likes Blue, p. 187.

School Library Journal, August, 1993, p. 160; July, 1995, Barbara Osborne Williams, review of Emeka's Gift, p. 74; April, 1996, Loretta Kreider Andrews, review of Ogbo, p. 127; January, 1999, Christine A. Moesch, review of Grandfather's Work, p. 100; December, 2000, Tammy K. Baggett, review of A Triangle for Adaora, p. 135; July, 2001, Genevieve Ceraldi, review of Saying Good-bye, p. 97.


ONLINE

Jubilee Books Web site, http://www.jubileebooks.co.uk/ (February 1, 2005), "Ifeoma Onyefulu."*

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