Picture Books from Asia and Africa

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I am still aiming for those 120 picture books by Dec 31st for There’s a Book’s Read to me Picture Book challenge. Today’s reviews, #s 103-105, return to a multicultural theme and come from India, Japan and South Africa.

Nine Animals and the Well by James Rumford.

I am indebted to my writing friend, Diana, for introducing me earlier this year on her blog to this talented author/illustrator. This story is based on a counting book fable. We discover that our ten Arabic numerals actually come from India, and not Arabia, as one might expect.

Children will be intrigued already on page one, where James has written the digits 1-0 as they do in Europe, North Africa, Arabia and India, showing their progressive origins. Page 3 evokes the senses with the beginning, “In the long-ago, rose-fragrant, animal-talking days….”. What opening skill!

With the listeners, we go on a counting journey as different animals join the road to the young raja-king’s birthday party. Each has brought, what he believes, the perfect gift for the young raja. Each newcomer disparages the previous gift and offers to share their ‘perfect’ gift, which they just happen to have in the increasing number required. So, for example, Cobra-jee is the sixth animal to join the procession. He poo-poos the five others glowing flowers, for the raja is already swimming in lotus! He proposes to share his SIX spools of silk ribbon, which the others happily agree to, casting aside their flowers. The collage illustrations are vibrant and very Indian and each time the animals toss their unwanted gifts aside, there is another animal ready to scoop them up with gratitude. Nothing is wasted.

Peacock is the ninth animal and proposes the ultimate of gifts. However, here by the well, outside the palace, tragedy strikes the party group and it appears they will arrive gift-less and embarrassed to the festivities. They need not have feared, for their prince is bountiful and wise and understands that friendship and stories are the sweetest of gifts! James’ text is as poetic as his artwork and this is a heartwarming and fun retelling of the ancient fable.

The Sea and I by Harutaka Nakawatari

This was originally written in Japanese and I am so glad that the American publisher, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, spotted the universal appeal of this picture book. Though twenty years old, the story has a quiet, timeless quality. The Illustrations make you feel as though you are walking through an art gallery of somber seascapes, for it is set on an island and for most of the story we are looking out to sea through the eyes of a young boy waiting for his father to return safely home in his fishing boat. Tension mounts as a storm appears to approach, and we look for the father’s boat from various vantage points along the beach. The text is sparse and simple, yet the boy’s waiting anxiety is beautifully portrayed. Evening comes and the wind subsides and the father returns safely to land. My favorite line, which I think the author could have used as the final sentence, but doesn’t, is ‘Father loves the sea, and I love him’. What poignant simplicity!

Jafta by Hugh Lewin and illustrated by Lisa Kopper

Let’s travel to a very different continent, for this story, set in South Africa. The author, Hugh Lewin, was born in South Africa and served a seven-year prison sentence for his opposition to apartheid. After being released he moved to England (where he raised his family) and later to Zimbabwe. The Jafta series grew out of his desire to share something of his homeland with his girls.

Once again there is a power in the simplicity of this book, that will capture kids’ attention, as they will so readily relate to Jafta, even though he comes from such a different culture. Lewin expresses the array of little Jafta’s moods, feelings and desires, by pages of similes, with joyful illustrations in brown and white to match, the text. When Jafta is happy, he purrs like a lion cub or skips like a spider. He wants to be as strong as a rhino or as quick as an ostrich. When he is cross, which is rare, Jafta grumbles like a warthog! Truly this short story transported me back to a special six month period I spent near Cape Town. Young children will want to leaf through this book many times after having it read aloud.

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17 Responses to Picture Books from Asia and Africa

  1. Patricia Tilton says:

    Enjoyed your selecting books from around the continent. And, I think it is important to share these stories with kids. I have read the James Rumsford book and found the artwork fun and beautiful. The message was a wonderful lesson. “The Sea and I” sounded like a good read as did “Jafta.” Sounds as Jafta would be a lot of fun for kids to act out the sounds. Very nice selection!

    • Joanna says:

      The three books are all very different, Pat. Nine Animals and the well has a more complex story, but as each scene builds on the previous, and the illustrations so evocative, it isn’t hard for children to follow. I agree, each page in Jafta could be acted out by children.

  2. Joanna – Nice selection of books! I have not heard of any of these and I am always looking for new picture books to read. Good luck with your reading goal! Looks like you are well on your way.

  3. Joanna says:

    Yes, Maeve, these are all quite different to many of the most popular picture books out there today, but still of great value.

  4. Cool! I loved this post on books of multicultural theme. James Rumfold’s books are “wicked” aren’t they. (of the coolest sense) So pleased you picked one of his books to review here, and thankyou so much for the link back to my interview with him.
    The Sea and I and Jafta also sounded like great books to read. I was particularly drawn to Sea and I.
    Thanks so much Joanna. 🙂

  5. Joanna says:

    Diane, James’ books are very ‘wicked’! He is a sensitive artist and eloquent writer!

  6. These all sound like delightful books.

    “In the long-ago, rose-fragrant, animal-talking days” is reminiscent of the Just So Stories for me. That makes it hold extra appeal. Is the text all that lyrical?

    The Sea and I particularly appealed to me, somehow I could see it very vividly in my mind just from your description.

    Thanks, Joanna!

  7. Laurie says:

    These all sound wonderful! I hope I am able to find them through the library!

  8. Joanna says:

    Laurie, I think the boys would particularly like Jafta and Nine Animals and the Well.

  9. Susanna says:

    What a lovely selection of books! They all sound wonderful. Isn’t it amazing how many truly talented authors and illustrators there are, and how many great books?

  10. These books all look great. Now, the task of trying to find a copy of them …

  11. Saba says:

    I agree Stacy, finding these treasures is the next step!!! 🙂 Thanks for sharing these wonderful books Joanna!!

  12. Joanna says:

    Saba and Stacey,

    I know your concerns. I only have our International School library to look in and am often frustrated not to be able to get my hands on books I see reviewed.

  13. LadyInRead says:

    Thank you for the wonderful selection Joanna…I am also discovering new authors and books across the world.So this adds to that knowledge and excitement of reading varied books. I discovered the same in the digital children’s library I wrote about in my post.. (thanks for your comments on that too)

  14. Joanna says:

    I think I know the digital you are talking about and have used it to great effect at school for sharing multicultural books with large groups on the whiteboard.

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