Drawn and Quarterly has published the English-language version of Aya, a charming, award-winning graphic novel written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, that follows a group of young people coming of age in Ivory Coast in the 1970s. Originally released in French by Gallimard Jeunesse, Aya was awarded the Best First Album prize at the 2006 Angoulême International Comics Festival.

Just released in the U.S. with an initial print run of 10,000 copies, Aya portrays a more hopeful, prosperous Africa than the one typically seen in Western news. Abouet, originally from Ivory Coast and now living in Paris, explained in an e-mail interview with PW Comics Week, “I was so annoyed by the manner in which the media systematically showed the bad sides of the African continent, the usual litanies of war, famine, AIDS, and other catastrophes.” She added, “I wished to show the other side, to straightforwardly tell about the daily life of Africans.”

By turns humorous and touching, the book vividly depicts a specific time and place and addresses themes familiar to anyone who has endured adolescence. Aya, a serious, ambitious teenager, lives in the working-class neighborhood of Yopougon in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. She looks on with a judging eye at the romantic escapades of her two best girlfriends, Adjoua and Bintou. Aya’s father, who dismisses her plans to become a doctor, is promoted to traveling salesman which puts pressure on his marriage. The rest of the book’s supporting cast of family and friends is equally engaging and comical. A 10-page online preview of Aya is available here.

Oubrerie’s sun-washed illustrations bring the neighborhood of Yopougon to life. The artist, who has used visits to Ivory Coast to inform his drawings, explained in an e-mail interview with PW Comics Week that “walking through places like Yopougon's market is unique, and I did my best to transcribe those kinds of atmospheres with drawing and color.” The book also has a charming bonus section at the end offering local Ivorian recipes, a glossary of Ivorian terms—even instructions for tying a pagne (a cloth used as a skirt or head scarf) and how to use it to catch a man’s eye. The book also offers an introduction by Alisia Grace Chase, that adds historical context about the period in which the book is set.

Abouet originally planned to write a children’s book focused on Aya’s younger sister. But after showing her initial attempts to Oubrerie, they worked together to create a full-length graphic novel. Oubrerie, who has published over 40 children’s books, helped Abouet understand the special requirements of the form. He explains: “I preserved the element of graphic unity, which implies in a comic book that the writing and the drawing interact and adapt to one another.”

D&Q, which has published numerous foreign-language works in English, learned of Aya soon after it won the First Album prize. Helge Dascher translated the work into English. According to Peggy Burns, D&Q publicity director, Dascher “is very in tune for translating for a young adult audience, as well as deciding whether to keep colloquial references and phrases or finding a suitable English replacement.” Aya has already been translated into German and Spanish, but, as Oubrerie notes, “reaching the States, where comic books are popular, is a great opportunity for the book.”

“The book has so many possible audiences that we reached out to all of them with the galley,” Dascher says, including American Library Association members and professors and journals of African literature. The company also completed a large mailing of finished copies to library, academic, mainstream and targeted press lists including African-American book review and consumer periodicals.

To attract female readers, D&Q took the unusual step of running press spots in such urban lifestyle and pop culture journals as Vibe Vixen and Body+Soul. Abouet will appear at the Pen World Voices Literary Festival in New York City in April and may attend the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and the Vancouver International Writers Festival. The ALA has nominated the book as one of its 2008 Great Graphic Novels for Teens.

Aya 2 was published in France in November 2006, and Abouet and Oubrerie are currently working on the third volume, each of which D&Q has expressed interest in publishing. Both creators believe that Aya will change readers’ understanding of Africa. Abouet explained: “I wanted to show that African women really have the same dreams as all other women on the planet, and to show their daily life with their hopes, their dreams and their desires to fulfill themselves as modern women in Africa.”