A Girl Called Problem
By Katie Quirk
Format: Paperback, 256 pp
Age Range: 10-14 years
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2013
Thirteen-year-old Shida lives in a small village in Tanzania. After the president encourages the people of his country to work together for all, the elders of Shida’s village choose to relocate to a new village. This can be good for Shida, who hopes to one day be a healer, since now she might be able to attend school.
Thirteen-year-old Shida, whose name means "problem" in Swahili, has been told all her life by her widowed mother that their family is cursed. When the elders of her village inform the residents of Tanzanian President Nayere's 1967 decree that they should move and share resources with a nearby village, Shida is excited for the change, thinking that she will finally have the opportunity to go to school and study under the village's nurse. Soon after arriving at the new village, however, troubling things begin to happen, and Shida's mother's belief in a curse seems more and more real. When tragedy strikes the family, surprising secrets are revealed, and the people must decide whether to remain in the new village or return to their land. Although the story has a slow start, readers will soon be immersed in the culture of this Sukuma village and will urge Shida on as she works hard to help her difficult mother and as she seeks the education that she will need to become a healer. Quirk strikes a good balance between traditional Sukuma tribal beliefs and more modern ideas about medicine and education. A glossary and help readers better understand the culture and setting in which the story takes place. Gr 6-9 —Sarah Reid / School Library Journal
“The ancestors don’t like girls going to school.” Is that why the crop is failing in 13-year-old Shida’s rural village in Tanzania in the late 1960s? Shida is thrilled to learn to read in her rough one-room schoolhouse, and her dream is to train with the village nurse. She is encouraged by her wise grandfather, Babu, an ardent follower of the adored new president, Nyerere, who supports women’s education and has freed the people from white colonialism. But many villagers, including Shida’s widowed, depressed mother and the boys in the classroom, are hostile to girls being educated and leaving the traditional ways. Who released the precious village cattle? Is someone poisoning the collective crops? Quirk spent two years in Tanzania, and this original paperback includes a detailed Swahili glossary with notes and photos. The young girl’s moving personal story brings close not only the intense battle over education and equality but also the basic struggle for the freedoms that come with running water, electricity, and medicine. Can Shida change her mother? Grades 5-9. —Hazel Rochman / Booklist
"Despite having penned this work of fiction as an outsider to the culture, Quirk's debut novel for children gives readers an intimate view of rural Tanzania in the early 1970s through details of daily life, folklore, family dynamics and spiritual beliefs. ...The novel offers a captivating introduction to Tanzanian life, culture and language (both Swahili and Sukuma), while the mystery of who has cast the 'curse' keeps readers intrigued. A mesmerizing read that expands young readers' worldview even as the pages turn." —Kirkus (starred review)
“... I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Katie Quirk told the story of so many girls. This was especially meaningful to me because I have had the opportunity to meet some girls like that. I have not been to Tanzania, but I have spent some time in West Africa, and the stories of the women there will shock you. There are so many brave girls, young and old. They are inspiring. I am so glad that there is a book to show the world that. While reading this book, I found myself thinking back to when I was 13 years old and how different my life was. Shida's story is not all sunshine and roses. There are some hard things to read in this book, but it was written so well that I could barely put it down.”
“It's a good book for 6th and 7th graders; there are so many things that they can learn from this book. Reading "A Girl Called Problem" would be a great way to start off a unit on other cultures and get the students interested in learning about other people and nations. ...”
“... There is so much in this story about the bravery, strength and ability of women. There is dissension in the village about girls going to school and doing anything other than getting married and having babies, but Shida and her cousin Grace prove that girls can and should be educated so they can pursue their dreams. Ah! Beautiful!
The verdict: top three reasons you should give this book to any middle grade girl you know:
1. Shida is a wonderful example of someone who has a dream and works hard to get it, even though she may struggle and want to give up at times.
2. This book is a fascinating and educational peek into African culture. The author actually lived in Africa for awhile and a lot of her experience informed this book. I loved the endnotes, pictures and glossary at the end of the book.
3. It is a mystery! For kids! And it’s fun! Is it just me, or are books about Africa usually about heavier fare such as slavery and war? While I think those books have their place, it is refreshing to read something fun. ...”
“A good addition to my East Africa reading! This one is middle-grade, and so a simplicity of voice is reflected accordingly, but it still tackles a number of important themes: child marriage, malaria awareness, village dynamics, magic and curses, need for education — and education for girls, specifically.
The story is set in Tanzania in its early days of independence (1967?), while the emerging nation is finding its footing, and how does that play out on a village level? It is a time of tremendous change, yet the stories and traditions of their people are an anchor. What do you hold to, and what do you release in the face of progress?
One thing I found unique is that while this book clearly demonstrates the value of education, medical training, access to medicine, etc, the author still treats their customs and traditions with respect. It seems like an “and” situation, rather than seeking to wipe out “backward beliefs” — at least, this is my perception. This is a middle-grade book, but not a missionary story.”