Calgary author explores West African culture, history with children's book

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Not too long ago, Yewande Daniel-Ayoade’s younger children went through a Disney princess phase.

This is not an uncommon thing for young girls. Daniel-Ayoade is the mother of four girls and one boy, ranging in age from seven to 18. So she has presumably witnessed this obsession among her children before.

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“It was all they would watch on TV, all these princess shows,” says Daniel-Ayoade. “I thought to myself ‘Where is the African princess, along with an African story?’ I thought wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who looks like my kids from a culture that is familiar to them.”

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This is how the prolific writer’s upcoming picture book, The Little Regent, was born. It is Daniel-Ayoade’s fifth book since 2019 and her first to be published by Owl Kids. The Little Regent is a princess story with a bit of a twist. Drawing from her West African culture – she grew up in Nigeria as part of the Yoruba tribe – the story revolves around a tradition that goes back to before Britain’s 19th-century colonization of Nigeria. Before the 1800s, communities were ruled by kings called Obas. When Nigeria received independence and adopted democracy. Obas became advisors to the government. When one died, it was tradition for the eldest son to take over. But if the Oba did not have a son, the eldest daughter would take on the role of a regent until a male replacement could be found. This is still common today in West Africa.

“I thought it was a good one to write about,” she says. “It also occurred to me during election season. That’s when you see all the politicians on TV behaving badly. That’s where the theme of the story came from, leadership. Kids need to know and see what good leadership looks like. So all of those things combined informed this book.”

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Yewande Daniel-Ayoade
Children’s book writer. Yewande Daniel-Ayoade. Photo submitted. Photo by Harry Mah /cal

The Little Regent, which will be released on March 15, takes place in a village in West Africa in contemporary times. Abioye is the eight-year-old daughter of a king who has died and she reluctantly becomes the community’s regent. The idea is that she will only keep the role until “kingmakers” choose three men who will be voted on by the villagers to become the new king. The chiefs of the village believe Abioye is not up for the task, but she asks her mother how to rule. She tells her daughter she might first learn to serve her community by “watching and listening.”

So begins Abioye’s adventure in her village, which is chronicled through concise prose and vibrant illustrations by Ken Daley. The girl ignores expectations that a regent keeps a royal distance from the townspeople. She ventures out into the village to see what is needed. That’s where she finds that the village is plagued by certain problems – including dirty water, poverty and inequality. Soon, much to the chagrin of the chiefs, Abioye begins to directly address the problems and find solutions.

While researching the book, Daniel-Ayoade discovered there is a movement among some Yorubas in West Africa to question the tradition that kings must be male.

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“I found so many newspaper articles of people saying ‘Why, if they did a good job while they were there, do they have to be replaced?’” she says. “So, in a little bit of a subversive way, I am challenging that culture and joining those voices that are asking questions and saying ‘We can change traditions. It doesn’t have to stay that way.”

Born and educated in Nigeria, Daniel-Ayoade began writing as an eight-year-old. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Ibadan before moving to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in business from Atlanta’s Emory University. She stayed in the U.S. until roughly a decade ago, when she moved to Calgary where she works as a management consultant.

In her 20s, she wrote a full-length novel that was never published but received enough positive feedback to convince her she should write. But sharing picture books with her children started her love affair with the medium. But it wasn’t until 2019 that she began writing her own. She self-published four books for children, including three based on a little girl named Sade, who immigrated to Canada from Nigeria with her family. In 2020, she published What’s The Worst That Could Happen, a story about an imaginative little girl suffering from anxiety about having to attend a new school.

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While Daniel-Ayoade has been keen to explore West African culture and the immigrant experience through all of her books, she says the themes are universal.

Her oldest daughter Elizabeth is 18 and studying art and creative writing in Toronto. She is also her mother’s chief literary critic when it comes to her books.

“The younger ones, they do think it’s cool that (the books) are in their classrooms,” she says. “I think they are a little excited by that fact, although they try not to show it.”

The Little Regent will be available on March 15. Yewande Daniel-Ayoade will hold a book signing on March 16 at Owl’s Nest Books.

Black History Month events

  • Storytelling Alberta presents an evening of tales from the perspective of African immigrants through music, spoken word poetry and storytelling. Hosted by Sarah Uwadiae on Feb. 28, 2024, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at CARYA Village Commons Café, 610 8th Ave. S.E. or online at www.storytellingalberta.com/calgary It featuries Adetola Adedipe, a Nigerian-South African slam poetry champion focused on community building; Jola Adeniji a Nigerian Canadian storyteller and visual artist; Femi David a.k.a. Big Ben/Olu Rock, a Nigerian Canadian multidisciplinary artist and storyteller drummer and storyteller who is a developmental disability specialist; and Sudy-Ann Brown, a spoken word poet from Jamaica where she was a three-time National Gold medal winner.
  • National Music Centre will present “Pass the Mic” with Master T and Guests on Feb. 27. Curated and hosted by Master T, the event will feature multiple-Juno Award winner Liberty Silver, Calgary’s poet laureate Wakefield Brewster, and Juno-nominated Canadian-Nigerian singer-producer Nonso Amadi.

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  • Jon Cornish, Chancellor of the University of Calgary and former Calgary Stampeder, in partnership with the Chinook Country Historical Society, will be hosting an event on Feb. 13 at Central Library. Power and Privilege in an Intersectional Life will explore the complexities of Jon’s journey as a person of mixed heritage and what it is like navigating a world rife with stereotypes and misconceptions. The Library will also screen several films that explore Black history and the experiences and contributions of Black people in Canada including True North: Inside the Rise of Toronto Basketball on Feb. 12; John Ware Reclaimed on Feb. 25; and The Road Taken on Feb. 29.

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