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Jigsaw of Fire and Stars

By Yaba Badoe | Reviewed by: Olatoun Gabi-Williams

Jigsaw of Fire and Stars tells the story of a circus family currently living in Cadiz, with its port city lights, its countryside of forests and undulating hills, its splendid beaches.  Hovering around, lapping the borders of this Spanish coastal town, is a world of fantasy which will crash in at pivotal moments, surprising the reader with the spectacle of  a normal town suddenly transforming into a theatre of the supernatural.

Yaba Badoe has created a wholesome adventure story for children in late childhood and early teens. Adults who enjoy circuses and who like to watch supremely gifted children perform wonders will also enjoy the ride.  But this is a modern tale with a tough edge: the child acrobats who drive the story will confront the darkness of a world teeming with sexual predators with a preference for defenceless children. Santé, Cat and Cobra will come face to face with dystopia: drug-addicted parents, their capacity to make moral choices so eroded, they feed off their own children.

Not to have good pitted against evil, with good triumphing, would have been irresponsible in a children’s adventure story and Badoe a skilful, child sensitive writer, seizes opportunities offered by the real and the fantastic to tell a story that reveals its messages as it unfolds. Soaring the skies, endued by her creator with the fierce protectiveness of a human mother, a golden eagle presides over Jigsaw’s world of fantasy.  She is Priss, lifelong friend and guardian of Santé, Jigsaw’s narrator, who relays the collision of the two worlds in a fresh and friendly voice and a 14 year old’s thoughtfulness that will endear her to readers.

Mama Rose’s circus of misfits, throwaways and refugees, dominate Santé’s waking hours.  Her adopted family, reviled as ‘gypsies’,  in flight from the police, ‘black boots’, take cover â€˜off the grid’ while cherishing one another, giving refuge to strangers, protesting injustice, and they are not all what they seem.   But Santé’s colourful family is displaced at night by the â€˜restless undead’, the ghosts of her birth family who were murdered and who crowd dreamscapes as she sleeps. Night after night, their yells and screams subside into a white noise of inchoate protestations breaking through her sleep.  

Clues to a wider figuration are hidden treasures aboard this fantasy ship. When you stumble on one, you know to look for others.  As a referent, Europe’s 21st century migrant crisis will be clear as the day but what might elicit smiles of irony from older readers, is the reversal of roles: poor migrants escaping troubles in Africa, presented as rich, ‘laden with treasure’: â€˜gold dust and diamonds’, while citizens of the European host country, are murderous thieves. As the book nears its end, in that overpowering descent - like a plague - of the â€˜restless undead’, will child readers recognise evocations of the bible? In Europe today, education is resolutely secular: will children recognise Old Testament vengeance on the rich vultures feasting on crimes they perpetrate against the lives of those who don’t matter - to them?

“We are travellers” says 14 year Asantewaa, daughter of Amma Serwah and Kofi Prempeh,  Ghanaians looking for a better life in Europe, murdered by pirates on the high seas. â€œWe’re travellers with an itch to camp in out of the way places,” repeats the orphan about her adopted circus family.  Her complexion, the colour of rich, dark chocolate, will come as a nice surprise to readers and teachers longing to see diversity more frequently and fully represented in children’s literature set in Europe. Here we have Santé from the Gold Coast; Cat and Cobra, bi-racial twins, abandoned at birth, left to die in a forest, all three adopted by Mama Rose.

Cared for by adults with outlandish looks, these beautiful  acrobats, leap, scale heights, somersault, dance and free-wheel their way across the European port city of Cadiz in sure-handed choreography by their creator who is moving them towards their story’s outcome: their destruction of a cartel of child sex-traffickers represented by an elderly predator known as the Captain.

 â€œNot your usual kind of travellers”. 

A 2017 publication, Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is a celebration of all forms of diversity, a joyful call to inclusion, released by Head of Zeus into the globally charged, high-pitched debate about closed and open borders.  This children’s book is Yaba Badoe’s  love-song, an antidote to the hateful rhetoric and divisive politics miring that debate. It has broken friendships and alienated families. In 2016, the debate turbo-charged the UK’s exit from the European Union. Not long afterDonald Trump rode victoriously into the US Presidency on waves of stormy protest against large scale immigration and the onslaught of refugees. Click Here to get a copy

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