Since it became the theme song of the Soccer World Cup in 2010, many young people all over the world have come to know and love the “Wavin’ Flag” song of Canadian-Somali Hip Hop singer K’naan (born Keynaan Abdi Warsame). This creative and impressive book for children aged six and up tells the story behind that song. In relatively few words and with superb illustrations it tells the story of the thirteen-year old K’naan, whose family was suddenly confronted with civil war violence in Mogadishu and fled first to New York City and from there to Toronto, Canada. Whenever K’naan did not feel well, was scared during the violence, or felt discouraged when he was picked on by schoolmates in Toronto, his grandfather would comfort him with the poetry lines: “When I get older, I will be stronger. They’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag.” At school in Toronto, the story goes, K’naan set these words to music and bridged the gap between himself and the other students at his school.
The real strength of this attractive book are the illustrations by artist Rudy Gutierrez. Gutierrez, who teaches at the Pratt Institute in New York, has received many prizes, including a Gold Medal from the New York Society of Illustrators. His illustrations, many of which cover two pages, imaginatively and beautifully evoke the events that make up K’naan’s story: the streetscape of Mogadishu; the arrival of gunmen and the fear his family experienced; his mother braving the dangerous streets of the city to get airplane tickets and other papers so that they could leave the country; the scary skyscrapers of New York City looming over the new refugees; K’naan’s brown sandaled feet in the Canadian snow, and so forth. These illustrations, drawn in a varying and beautiful palette of colors, range from concrete and abstract. One of this reviewer’s favorites is the one in which K’naan’s mother, whose body is outlined in what looks somewhat like the iconic halo in pictures of our Lady of Guadalupe, walks through city streets that are lined by large, half-visible heads of individuals with expressions of pain and sorrow. This kind of abstraction challenges young minds and will make for great conversations between them and the grownups reading with them.
Sol Guy, who has written and produced this book with K’naan, is K’naan’s manager and the (ethical) music entrepreneur to whom many talented young artists throughout the world owe much of their commercial success and world-wide fame. In this book it is Gutierrez who shines, but the collaboration between K’naan, Sol Guy, and Gutierrez, has produced a wonderful book for children.
If there is something to quibble with, it would be the one-but-last section of the book, entitled “A Brief History of Somalia.” In its mention of drought and famine, this section refers to failing crops but does not refer to livestock husbandry which is an important economic sector and closely intertwined with Somali history and culture. It is fine not to equate Somalia with camel herding only but omitting it completely does not do justice to economic and social realities.
Overall this is a creative, imaginative, instructive, and beautiful children’s book. Highly Recommended
Published in Africa Access Review (February 12, 2013)
Copyright 2013 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Lidwien Kapteijns, Wellesley College