port of harlem magazine
Theo Hodge, Jr. M.D.
Too Small Tola
Jul 15 – Jul 28, 2021
too small tola

"Too Small Tola" by Atinuke is a delightful book which introduces a slate of charming characters to young readers. The collection of three short stories focuses on the daily lives of Tola, a young girl growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, and her grandmommy, sister, and brother.

Each chapter presents an account of Tola’s trials and triumphs. We watch as Tola makes a strenuous visit to the market, copes with the effects of a water outage, and assists a neighbor with his work after he is injured. Tola is a resourceful, kind, and energetic kid who quickly wins the reader’s affection and admiration.

"Too Small Tola" does a wonderful job depicting the lives of this working-class Nigerian family while portraying the drama of daily life through the perspective of a young girl. What I loved most about the book is that it takes Tola’s life on its own terms. It doesn’t exoticize life in Lagos nor does it shy away from some of the challenges that exist for poor and working-class families. It certainly doesn’t pity its characters, who are fully empowered and wonderfully developed.

Characters are presented as whole people, not as stereotypes. While Tola and her family may live in a “run-down block of apartments” with “stained walls” surrounded by “rough potholed bare earth,” they lead full lives. They make time to enjoy an ice cream treat, buy diapers for a neighbor, and do their homework on the family’s computer. The result is a beautiful and complex depiction of life in urban Nigeria.
In “Easter and Eid,” Tola finds herself assisting her neighbor, a Muslim tailor, with his work as people begin to prepare for the upcoming holidays, which happen to overlap during this particular year.
One of the ways that the book highlights the perspective of its characters is through its use of language. Nigerian references and slang are interspersed throughout the book and not belabored with much explanation.

Grandmommy says “o-ya” regularly and announces, “Phone battery done die.” People are described as “shaky-shaky” or “lazy-lazy,” or are wearing “tiny-tiny” shoes. Tola takes a danfo, uses jerrycans and wrappers, and listens to a D’Banj song. Readers who aren’t familiar with these references or vocabulary words can easily glean their meaning through context clues, and sometimes through the small illustrations that grace every page. The overall effect centers Tola’s experience and invites readers into her life in an approachable way. 

Another strength of "Too Small Tola" is its deft integration of the diversity of Lagos, and of Nigeria by extension. The portrait of the diverse and dynamic city comes through most clearly in the final story, “Easter and Eid.”This story highlights the celebrations around these two important religious holidays and explores the way that the Christian and Muslim communities can live in harmony and mutual respect.

In “Easter and Eid,” Tola finds herself assisting her neighbor, a Muslim tailor, with his work as people begin to prepare for the upcoming holidays, which happen to overlap during this particular year. Tola is sent around town to take measurements for people as they make their holiday outfit orders. She meets people from all walks of life on her journey, everyone from a middle-class Muslim mother of five to an uber-wealthy pop star.

Tola and her brother visit “shacks and chalets, mansions and markets, houses and hotels.” Through their journey around the city, we see Lagos not just as the working-class place that Tola herself mostly inhabits, but also as a place with tremendous wealth and everything in between.

We also see Muslims and Christians supporting one another and celebrating alongside one another. This single chapter effectively dismantles what Adichie described as the “Single Story about Africa” in a fun narrative that emphasizes the virtues of helping your neighbors.

"Too Small Tola" succeeds by keeping its emphasis on its protagonist and her family. While we get most attached to plucky Tola, we admire her sister Moji’s commitment to academic excellence, laugh at her brother Dapo’s antics, and admire her grandmommy’s strength.

Each story deepens the reader’s knowledge about these characters, and by the end of the book, I found myself wanting more of all of them. I hope that Atinuke develops a series of Tola books, much like she did with her previous series, Anna Hibiscus. I can imagine children eagerly returning to read about Tola and her adventures, and in so doing, glimpsing a bit of the dynamism and diversity of Lagos. I highly recommend this book for early readers and the people that enjoy reading with them!

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