When we meet Malia, we notice that her interactions with peers and adults are a bit atypical for a junior high student. When a peer teases her about autism, we gain a clue into her personality. Although Dr. Barrow never specifies whether or not Malia places on the autism spectrum, some degree of autism would explain her quirky traits.
In addition to a possible autism diagnosis, Malia has a fairly dysfunctional family to contend with. When her mother runs off to the city to live with a "creep" of a boyfriend, Malia is left living with her grandpa. Her grandpa, meanwhile, is keeping Malia's dead grandma preserved in the family freezer, among their meat and vegetables. He is trying to find a way for Malia's grandma to continue to communicate with them, but only Malia is able to receive her grandma's "transmissions" through one of her heirloom necklaces. Malia knows that she needs to keep her social worker from discovering the truth about her grandma in order to remain living with her grandpa. Even though Malia and her grandpa are successful in keeping their secret, when Malia's grandpa learns he has a severe heart condition, he turns her over to social services. At this point, Malia learns that her mom and grandparents have lied to her for years, and her father is not dead, but is alive and living in Kenya.
Malia's Awesome African Adventure commences when she is put on a plane to Kenya, to live with her dad, his wife, and his preteen son. Malia has a hard time adjusting to her dad's scheduled, rule-based home, and ends up befriending the African cook, and a tiny dog called Teacup. At this point, the book becomes part mystery, part adventure. When Malia and Teacup decide to sleep in a tent in the yard in order to pass daily room inspections, they are kept busy avoiding cheetahs and an elephant stampede. When not dodging wild animals or Malia's stepbrother, they occupy themselves trying to discover who, exactly, Malia's father is, and why a customs inspector is so interested in him.
Throughout her adventures, Malia learns positive character attributes like bravery, honesty, open-mindedness, and how to make friends. She also realizes that judging people without all the facts can lead to some major mistakes.
In the exciting climax, Malia realizes her dad loves her and is actually a good person. She also realizes that she must act to save Teacup, regardless of risk to herself. Upon returning to the States (after surviving a cargo hold, pirate attack, and being tracked down by the evil inspector) she learns that her mother loves her too. In fact, she has finished nursing school and is married to Malia's favorite teacher--not the creep.
There are a couple of instances of praying--Malia's grandpa prays for her as he sends her off to Kenya, and Malia prays the Lord's Prayer (because it was the only prayer she knew) when she is about to be caught by the inspector. There is also a brief discussion about whether all gods are the same as Allah. Malia asks a friend, "Do you think your God is a different God than my God?" Tahir answers, "No, Allah is Allah for everyone." They then agree that there must be a God because the world is too beautiful to be random.
Delightful pencil sketches begin each chapter. Teacup is adorable, Malia has beautiful, big eyes and wild, curly hair, and each illustration is captioned by a corresponding quote from the chapter.
What I Like: My favorite part of the book is Malia. She is an unusual protagonist, because she is not socially adept or well-adjusted, and deals with phobias and an often-grumpy attitude. She provides a stark contrast to the syrupy, always-sweet protagonists of many "character-building" novels. At the same time, she is funny, likable, and resilient, and we see her grow and change as a result of her adventures.
I also like the fast-paced adventure and mystery elements of the novel. I meant to put it down half a dozen times, but ended up reading until midnight in order to find out what happened. The characters are quite complex and diverse--the African cook is very kind, but has three wives, Malia's stepmother is vain and frivolous, but good-hearted, and Malia's grandpa is eccentric but loves her immensely. We are kept guessing about the inspector and Malia's dad until the end, and even Malia's stepbrother and mom have good qualities. This type of book would be useful for children who tend to see the world in "good and bad" or "right and wrong" terms.
Dr. Barrow includes several fun and informative appendices. She includes a note on Kenya, Swahili terms, and a "creep alert" checklist (tips on staying safe and avoiding abusive situations and people), in addition to a discussion guide.
What I Dislike: There are a few plot and character inconsistencies that make the reading of the novel more difficult. The main issue is there is little explanation of why Malia's grandparents don't give her letters from her mother, and neither does her father. The story works when we think Malia's mother is uncaring and uninvolved, but the surprise of having Malia's mother married and happy to have Malia live with her is a bit of a stretch. If she was caring, wouldn't she have asked Malia to come live with her in the city for the summer, instead of allowing her to be shipped off to Kenya?
In another instance, Malia's father allows her to climb into the cargo hold of a ship and travel to America, in order to be with Teacup. Throughout the journey, the inspector tracks Malia through Teacup's embedded microchip, but this never occurs to her dad, despite his CIA training.
Perhaps Dr. Barrow is showing us adults through Malia's eyes, and that is why they seem so inconsistent and don't act like we think adults should. If Malia indeed placed on the autism spectrum, she would miss social cues and would only be able to interpret adult behavior through concrete actions. However, I wish that there were more respectable adults in Malia's world.
The other issue of concern in Malia and Teacup: Awesome African Adventure is the fact that Malia's grandpa is trying to preserve his wife's body and find a way to communicate with her. Not only is this eccentric and disturbing behavior, the Bible specifically forbids communicating with people who have died. In Deuteronomy 18: 10-11, we read, "There shall not be found among you anyone who. . .calls up the dead." Speaking with the dead is too similar to praying to them, and it shows a lack of faith in God. Dr. Barrow could have shown Malia remembering things her grandma had said to her and having the same internal dialogue with her, without actually speaking to her while deceased.
Overall Rating: Very Good
Age Appeal: 9-13
Publisher Info: Barringer Publishing, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-9825109-0-2 ; Paperback, $14.95
Buy it at Amazon.com for $11.66.
Special Information: Some readers may find the idea of a dead grandmother in a freezer disturbing, and may object to the concept of trying to communicate with her.