Blog Tour - Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls: Q&A with Atinuke and Onyinye Iwu —

As part of Walker Books' Blog Tour for Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls, which was published earlier this month, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Atinuke and Onyinye Iwu, author and illustrator of the marvellous Too Small Tola series.

As well as their wonderful own-voice chapter books, we talked about the representation of African communities in children's literature, education, and life in lockdown for the illustrious Nigerian-British creators.

Atinuke, why did you decide to write the Too Small Tola series?
Too Small Tola is my third series. In my first series, Anna Hibiscus, I wanted to write about a modern urban African childhood — so many children in the West don't even know this exists.

In my second series, The No. 1 Car Spotter, I wanted to introduce the joy, dignity, and worth of a more traditional rural African childhood without ignoring the challenges.

I decided to write Too Small Tola because I wanted to return to the city but, this time, to a less-privileged childhood, to show the strength, courage, and ingenuity required to navigate such a life, and how important family ties are for survival. I want the world to see how amazing these children and their communities are.

Photo © Paul Musso

How closely do the Tola stories resemble your own childhood experiences in Lagos?
I had a very privileged childhood in Lagos — much more like Anna Hibiscus. But I was very aware, even as a child, that while I rode around in air-conditioned cars, children my own age were running through the lanes of dangerous traffic, trying to make a living selling things to the drivers. It seemed so unfair and was very painful for me to witness, even as a child.

You can hear subtle Nigerian word stresses and rhythm in the dialogue which, for me, make both Tola books really special. How important is authentic dialogue to you?
It is very, very important to me. My books are modern Nigerian fiction so they must be written in Nigerian English — even though the spelling is standardised — so only a Nigerian reader would recognise it. It is like a secret, hidden in the books — a secret just for Nigerians. I was once fluent in what is still called pigeon English, a language that is endlessly changing. It is my aspiration to one day write a book in that language — that is endlessly creative, funny, and clever.

Mighty Grandmummy is my favourite character. Is she inspired by anyone in particular?
She is inspired by my own Nigerian grandmother, of course! My grandmother terrified the whole family — there was no member too big or too small not to quiver if she turned a stern eye on them. And yet, her powerful love held us all together across many generations and, even, nationalities.

Tola, Dapo, and Moji come across as very independent children, even more so in Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls. In general, do you think there's a difference between children's levels of independence in the UK and Nigeria?
Yes. And that difference is increased by socio-economic factors. In poorer families, it is not possible to protect children from the outside world when you need those children to go out and contribute to making a living.

Apart from the word count, how would you say crafting a short chapter book for 7-9-year-olds is different from writing longer novels for older children?
Well... I have not yet written a longer novel for older children so I cannot say. But I do write books for even younger children. The shorter the word count, the more like poetry it gets. The more every word has to count in conveying a character, a setting, a story. The more words you have, the more room there is for characters to have adventures, and for the reader to explore their worlds.

Were there any compromises you had to make when crafting own-voice texts for the UK market?
It is one of my challenges as a writer to write something Nigerian that also works for a reader who is not Nigerian. It is very important for me to be faithful to the country and the people I am writing about. However, my books mostly sell to Western markets, and if they don't sell then it is a wasted opportunity, and one I would not be offered again. So there have been many compromises over the years.

Which do you prefer: oral storytelling or writing books?
Oral storytelling has a power and a magic that is incomparable. The story is literally created in the moment of 'telling' between the storyteller and the audience. The same story can be more humorous, or more serious, or longer or shorter depending on how the audience responds — I play to them. However, it is terrifying to walk out on that stage alone! Writing is safer — I can hide — and it is a more solitary endeavour, which actually suits my personality better.

Did you learn anything from the first book Too Small Tola that you took forward into Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls?
I learn from each book that I write. And Tola is definitely teaching me, not just about resilience and quiet strength, but also more about rhythm and dialogue as I juggle the four main characters: Tola and her family.

I loved Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls, and I'm excited for the last book in the trilogy. Has work started on it yet? If so, can you give us any clues as to what it's about?
The third book is being edited now. I wrote it during the first world lockdown when I worried intensely for those children who live hand to mouth — how would they survive? Writing Tola was one way to find out.

Onyinye, when did you decide you wanted to be an illustrator?
I was an only child until I was 10 years old and my favourite pastime was to draw people, characters, and create stories around them. I did not really know that being an illustrator was an actual job. However, as drawing was my passion I kept practising throughout my childhood and teenage years.

Eventually, after my GCSEs, I realised that illustration could be a profession, and even if I did not pursue it at university, opting for architecture instead, I always kept a fire burning for illustration in my heart, and continued to draw people and characters for my own pleasure until I decided to start sharing my work online in 2013.

From where do you draw your artistic inspiration?
Originally, I was inspired by cartoons that I watched and comic books that I read. They helped me to see the whimsy in real life and to view the world in a more magical and colourful way. As I developed as an artist, I started becoming inspired by other illustrators. My biggest inspiration was Quentin Blake. He brought the Roald Dahl books alive with his brilliant illustrations and managed to show so much emotion with a few simple lines.

How did you come up with your distinctive style for the Too Small Tola book series?
When I was presented with Too Small Tola and her family I was instantly taken by their vibrant and joyful characters. I knew the books would contain black-and-white images so my goal has always been to create lively characters, animated faces, and vivid patterns that did not require colour to stand out.

How much does your Igbo heritage influence your work?
Specifically, whilst working on the Too Small Tola series, I am amazed by how much I reference my own life in the illustrations. So, for example, fabric patterns, objects, food, and even people in the books, are often part of my memories.

I did not directly grow up in Nigeria however. I grew up in a very strong Igbo community in Italy and was constantly surrounded by cultural references that are still present in my life as an adult.

I'm intrigued by the distinctive design motif used for lettering on the cover artwork. Is it an authentic Nigerian pattern?
The pattern used for the title of the book is not a particular African pattern. I often experiment with elements of different patterns to see how they could work together and try to create something new in the process.

Does your role as a secondary teacher inform your artwork in any way?
Not necessarily my artwork. However, I have always wanted to educate children through books so that is something I am looking to explore.

What subject do you teach?
Design and Technology including resistant materials, product design, graphic design, engineering, construction, and art and design.

Teaching is so all-consuming. Where do you find the time to fit in your artwork?
I work early in the morning before school, at times in the evenings after school, and, most comfortably, on weekends and holidays. It is exhausting but worth the effort!

You work a lot with children through teaching. Do you think British children's perceptions of contemporary African countries have improved?
I have seen an improvement amongst children of African and Caribbean descent who may be more exposed to travel to African countries on holiday and who may also consume things like Afrobeats music and the modern, refined Nollywood films and series. However, on the whole, British children still need to be shown what Africa looks like now, and what it is producing! The continent is developing at such a fast speed and so much good is coming out of it, we must share its great achievements with the world to change some widespread outdated perceptions!

Do you think our continual lockdowns have helped or hindered your artistic process?
These lockdowns have been tough for everyone. As an artist, it has been hard with so much sadness and anxiety in the world. I must be honest and say that I have not used this time to develop my skills. Instead, I have taken it day by day and used my time to reflect — to rest without putting too much pressure on myself — to grasp the opportunity of staying at home. It is okay if you have not done your best work today. It is a difficult time.

What's in store for you in 2021? Any other positive news you'd like to share?
I am working on books, books, and more books which, for me, is very positive! Also, one of these books was written by me, which I am super excited about. It has some amazing connections to my African heritage so I'm thrilled to be hopefully sharing this news with everyone soon!

You can read my review of Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls, written by Atinuke and illustrated by Onyinye Iwu, here. It's also available for purchase at Bookshop.

Do check out the rest of the Walker Books' Blog Tour, which runs until 28 January (see details below).

Thanks to Walker Books UK for permission to use images from the Too Small Tola book series. Text Atinuke, illustrations Onyinye Iwu.