Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers.
Vintage Canada, Penguin Random House, Toronto, Canada, my edition 2016, originally published 2012.
Nonfiction, 232 pages.
Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a place where children were learning to play chess. Initially motivated more by a free daily meal, she soon found she had a gift for chess which might propel her out of the slums of Katwe, Uganda.
Normally I am very strict about always reading first before seeing any movie based on a book. In this case both my family and I really wanted to see the film, so I did watched before reading the book. Sometimes seeing the movie version first can color the interpretation of the book.
The movie focused mainly on Phiona and combined characters or changed the timeline to heighten the drama. While the book also centers around Phiona, it includes information about her coach Katende and other people involved in the program, whether those involved in the creation whom she never met or other kids who played chess with her.
The program that Katende was working for is a Christian organization, and Phiona’s mother Harriet became a Christian. So there are references to attending church, and Katende give talks to the children that include bible stories. Several people talk about spiritual motivation driving their work in Uganda. The book could still interest non-Christians as long as they’re prepared for the occasional religious references.
Another interesting aspect is how the chess boys, who initially didn’t even want to play Phiona, rallied to prepare her for competition. Some actually state in the interviews that since she had a chance at becoming a star, they chose to focus on helping her succeed rather than promoting themselves. Partly that has to do with the status of chess and women in Uganda. Men’s chess is more competitive, while women’s chess is seen as a hobby that most women give up after they leave school or get married.
Phiona’s intense focus on chess (she often wasn’t able to go to school and the small fees or travel allowance she received might allow her family to eat a meal or pay their rent), combined with her natural talents and the setup of chess in Uganda, allowed her to climb the ranks quickly in a way that surprised many people.
Funnily enough, their determination to help her actually gained two of the boys a chance to travel out of Uganda. It’s only briefly mentioned in the book, but when Phiona wins the girl’s spot in an international tournament, other players dropped out rather than travel with a girl from the slums. So the two best male players from Katwe got to go instead.
The book is certainly worth reading, if only to learn more about Katwe and Uganda. I enjoyed the cultural details and historical information that gave background to the main story. Each chapter opens with a well-chosen picture. However I wasn’t thrilled with the structure of the book. Crothers tried to model it on a chess game, but either his understanding of chess was not deep enough or the story just didn’t fit that mold.
At points the narrative jumped and left gaps. While I understand the need to mention the organization sponsoring the soccer and later chess games, it felt odd to have an entire chapter away from the main setting and characters. The stories about hurdling champions were relevant since those were role models for the Katwe kids, but the story that opened the first chapter (about the founding of Katwe) just sort of trailed off and didn’t connect to anything else except the setting. Perhaps if I hadn’t watched the movie first, maybe these digressions wouldn’t have confused or irritated me so much.
This book is for adults, even more so than the movie. While the movie obliquely refers to the prostitution Phiona’s sister entered at 15 to save her family, the book specifically refers to both the situation in which most teens in Katwe and the Ugandan AIDs crisis that took Phiona’s father. At the end we learn that Phiona’s niece Rita was kidnapped as a toddler. If still alive (she would now be around 11), readers can only imagine what horrors she’s experiencing.
There are also very realistic descriptions of incredible poverty (such as sleeping in a hammock suspended from the ceiling because at any moment raw sewage may flood your home). This would work in high school libraries but for younger children I’d pre-read, or maybe use this as a read aloud and edit graphic descriptions or desperate scenarios as they come up.
I hope that they publish a young reader’s edition of this book or a picture book about Phiona. Meanwhile, I’d recommend this for teens and adults.