Mama Africa

Children’s Non-Fiction / Biography

by Kathryn Erskine, illustrated by Charly Palmer
October 2017 – Farrar, Straus & Giroux BYR/Macmillan US

2018 Steptoe Illustrator Award

Miriam Makeba, a Grammy Award–winning South African singer, rose to fame in the hearts of her people at the pinnacle of apartheid―a brutal system of segregation similar to American Jim Crow laws. Mama Africa, as they called her, raised her voice to help combat these injustices at jazz clubs in Johannesburg; in exile, at a rally beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and before the United Nations.

Set defiantly in the present tense, this biography offers readers an intimate view of Makeba’s fight for equality. Kathryn Erskine’s call-and-response style text and Charly Palmer’s bold illustrations come together in a raw, riveting duet of protest song and praise poem. A testament to how a single voice helped to shake up the world―and can continue to do so.

Kathryn Erskine is the National Book Award–winning author of Mockingbird. She has also written Seeing Red, The Absolute Value of Mike, and The Badger Knight. She lived in South Africa for part of her childhood, and grew up listening to Miriam Makeba’s songs. Mama Africa! is her first picture book.

Charly Palmer is a graphic designer, illustrator, and fine artist. As a child, he was fascinated by Ezra Jack Keats’s illustrations for The Snowy Day, which inspired Charly’s own use of color and geometric shapes. He studied art and design at the American Academy of Art and the School of the Art Institute, both in Chicago. Mama Africa! is his first picture book.


• 2018 Steptoe Illustrator Award
• Kirkus’s Best Picture Books of 2017


“National Book Award–winner Erskine (Mockingbird) takes readers to the South Africa of her childhood as she follows the rise of singer/activist Miriam. […]In his first children’s book, Palmer uses thick, forceful brushstrokes to create vibrant, abstracted portraits of Makeba and her South African home. This rousing account of how Makeba used her music to fight for equality concludes with a timeline and extensive author’s note.”—Publishers Weekly, STARRED

“Palmer’s densely illustrated, painterly scenes give readers a strong sense of the culture and beauty of South Africa. His images of people, however, often include just enough detail to reveal their emotions. […]An excellent perspective from which American readers can learn about apartheid and one of the pioneers who fought it through her art.”—Kirkus, STARRED

“Erskine’s prose style is expressionistic, with lyrical sentences that alight on significant events, such as Makeba’s flight from her homeland in disguise, her powerful testimony at the United Nations, the horrific Soweto killings, and Mandela’s release from jail, ending with the singer’s triumphant return home after apartheid is ended. Potent quotes and song lyrics keep the intensity high, as does the clever use of words in a fierce red, often repeated to begin the subsequent page, lending the text a driving propulsion. Debut illustrator Palmer heightens the overall sense of urgency with vivid paintings pulsing with color, movement, and emotion.”—Horn Book, STARRED

“Debut illustrator Palmer’s painterly spreads shine in rich colors and bold brushstrokes, capturing the passion of Makeba mid-song… A welcome addition to picture book biography collections.”—School Library Journal