In this graphic anthology for youth ages 8-12, a collection of creators come together to present various reimaginings of African folklore and fairy tales. Spanning fables from Nigeria, Egypt, West Africa, Zimbabwe, and more, The Girl Who Married a Skull includes origin stories that explain why no one likes hyenas (they’re mean) and why turtles live in water (they don’t want you to eat them) as well as tales that highlight wit, bravery, and female strength. While some stories suffer from rather lackadaisical endings and look like coloring pages for toddlers, I found this little collection both amusing and playful.
For example, in the Nigerian fable of the book’s title, the main character is cheekily named “disobedient daughter.” She’s one of the most beautiful girls in her village, and all of the boys are in love with her. But it’s the dashing stranger (really a devious skull in disguise) who ultimately wins her hand in marriage. When the skull starts shedding borrowed body parts and returning them to their eager owners, (we’ve been previously warned that things are going to “get a little weird”) she realizes her mistake too late. Now she’s stuck in the underworld, expected to do the cleaning, washing, and household chores for the skull and its mother. It’s one of the more clever stories in the collection, and you can tell that writer and artist Nicole Chartrand had a lot of fun playing with the girl-meets-boy trope, as well as the unfortunate girl-wants-to-marry-boy-after-five-minutes-of-knowing-him plot device.
Other stories include a gorgeously illustrated portrayal of bird politics, an assassin in space, and an exploration in fairness with a crocodile. There is literally something for everyone. A couple of adaptations fell flat for me. Next to their more thoughtful counterparts, the overly simple artwork and fast pace makes them feel like obnoxious commercial breaks during a Saturday cartoon. However, these are rare moments, and young readers might welcome the light-hearted respite from the more involved stories.
The diverse artwork does well to complement the vast array of folktales, incorporating bold, loud lines in tales like “Why Turtles Live in Water” and “Gratitude” to express the collection’s zanier stories. In more contemplative tales, like the Zimbabwean “Chiefs Heads,” the illustrations are soft, almost delicate. My one complaint is that the illustrations are in black-and-white. African culture is known for its use of rich color and it seems a shame not to honor that in a visual representation of its folklore.
It’s important to note that there aren’t many titles out there that expose American children to cultures outside their everyday experiences, that present such a varied palette of artistic styles and moods, and that are both educational and fun all at the same time. The Girl Who Married a Skull manages to incorporate all of these elements into a wonderful introduction to African culture. Highly recommended for young fans of mythology, magic, and adventure.
The Girl Who Married a Skull: and Other African Stories
By Kate Ashwin D. Shazzbaa Bennett Mary Cagle
Iron Circus Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Middle grade (8-12)