Colour therapy

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Tom Deveson meets Ifeoma Onyefulu, who teaches through pictures of her African home and family

Some of the most attractive picture books for children, full of the warm colours of Africa, owe their existence to a moment in Finsbury Park. It might seem a long way from north London to the Nigerian village celebrated in Ifeoma Onyefulu's Chidi Only Likes Blue (TES, August 28), but the career of this photographer and writer of graceful skill and feeling makes afascinating story.

Ifeoma comes from Onitsha, a noisy commercial town north of the mouth of the Niger. Her hardworking Ibo family gave her a multitude of role models - pharmacist, dancer, teacher, writer, lawyer, designer - as well as great resources of loving support. When she came to London in the early 1980s to study business management, she intended to go back once she had her qualification. But then came that moment in the park.

Ifeoma hadn't seen an English spring day before. Something in the light reminded her of Nigeria and made her want to record it. She started evening photography classes. Hard toil and an alert eye brought her an exhibition and freelance work. Then came her superb books that find a deserved place in so many schools and libraries.

The ideas are simple. A is for Africa teaches the alphabet, Emeka's Gift is about the numbers from 1 to 10, One Big Family is about helping and sharing, Chidi Only Likes Blue (illustrated below) shows different colours. But they offer far more than simple back-to-basics lessons in numeracy and literacy.

Here are informative commentaries on many aspects of African life. We learn about cooking and clothes, music and markets, games and grandmothers. We are invited to think about neighbourliness and friendship. We see the world afresh through the eyes of children. Above all, we are drawn into the life that Ifeoma celebrates with pictures and text.

She often starts her books with a few words. "When I'm washing the dishes, a phrase jumps out of my mouth. I rush off to write it down without knowing yet what it's from." Then comes a period of planning the book's structure. During a visit to Africa she moves on to drawings and sketches. The photographs come next, and sometimes take over the words.

This co-operation between word and image is reflected in Ifeoma's concern for her books' overall design. Placed together, they all look like members of a family, with a shared sense of style. She appreciates her designers at Frances Lincoln, but also has her own firm ideas which she argues for passionately. The fabric-style borders in A is for Africa came from a pair of trousers she was wearing when the book was being planned.

One of her skills is to take pictures that make their point simply by being true. Her son Emeka's 10 cousins were in the village to greet him, and there they are on the page, smiling.

The next book, My Grandfather is a Magician, will commemorate a man who knew about pain-relieving herbs. It will also reveal another, peopled, layer of African life, beyond the commonplace photogenic appeal of elephants and zebras.

"I want children to know the Africa I grew up in," says Ifeoma. Now settled in north London with her painter husband and two sons, she moves imaginatively between continents, between village and city. Children, teachers and parents are blessed by the gifts of that mobile imagination.

Chidi Only Likes Blue by Ifeoma Onyefulu. Frances Lincoln Pounds 9.99

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