"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.