Review of the Day: For You Are a Kenyan Child
Essentially I’ve come to the conclusion that Ana Juan could come to my home and hit me over the head with multiple frying pans and I would STILL worship at her feet. You know that fantasy everyone has where a famous children’s book illustrator walks up to you one day and says, “I made this incredibly beautiful painting, pre-framed, just for you”? You don’t have that one? Well I do. And the illustrator in question would be Ana Juan. My goodness me, how that woman can paint. From her Fellini-esque, “The Night Eater” to the biography of “Frida” that only SHE could have illustrated, Juan is consistently brilliant in whatsoever she chooses to do. So when first-time picture book author Kelly Cunnane found that, “For You Are a Kenyan Child” was to fall into the creative hands of Juan, one can only imagine her response. The pairing of an artist who’s picture book work, prior to this title, has been almost solely fantastical with a playful but realistic author makes for a unique book. One that reads as well as it looks.
A child wakes in Kenya, “in the green hills of Africa, sun lemon bright over eucalyptus trees full of doves”, to herd his Grandfather’s cows. He’s instructed by his mother to watch them carefully, but the cows won’t mind if he slips away for a moment to see who else is up and about, will they? There’s Bashir who bakes some pancakes in the morning, and the great black monkeys that perch in the trees. There’s the village chief who is carving a magnificent lion and Grandmother who offers “sleeping milk, sweetened with crushed charcoal, fresh from the gourd”. Distracted further by friends and playmates the boy finally makes it back to the field . . . but the cows are gone! Grandfather has come for them, and though all he says is, “Let’s go home now”, it’s clear that the boy has been chastised. Home they go and everyone falls gently to sleep, “like you, like us”.
No offense to Ms. Juan, but there have been times when her stories did not match the beauty of her pictures. Campbell Geeslin’s, “Elena’s Serenade”, was a good idea for a tale, but the text itself was stilted and off-putting. That’s a danger that never comes up when you’re reading Cunnane’s words. First of all, she’s taken the gutsy idea of writing the book in the second person. I’m sure that other children’s book writers have done this in the past, but none are coming to my mind. The whole book is telling the child reader exactly what “you” are doing at this moment in time. It’s fabulous. Using the conceit of a playful child visiting everyone in his village, the book is also able to visit all kinds of denizens of this small Kenyan village. The tone is a playful one, imparting information about Kenya so seamlessly within the text that you never feel you are “learning” anything. Rather, it all flows together in a beautiful logical fashion.
And then there’s the factual information. In a small section at the front of the book, so out of the way that you wouldn’t necessarily know to look for it, there is, “A Note About the Text”. In that space Cunnane explains a great deal about Kenya itself, its languages, and common terms of greeting and response. She then follows this up with a Glossary of words with a pronunciation guide to boot. This was all mighty informative information, but what the heck was it doing on what should have been the publication page? The publication information, more baffling still, is instead at the back of the book. Under normal circumstances this situation would be switched. A child would finish reading the book and then their parent would show them the Note About the Text and the Glossary for further information. Why the publisher inanely switched the two is baffling. Now we’ve critical info hidden obliquely at the front of the book where few would think to seek it out. Bad, Antheneum! Bad!
Finally, there are the pictures. Juan has filled her illustrations with all the emotion and color best befitting a tale of this sort. The hero, a wide-eyed child of irrepressible energy, is followed perpetually by a similarly big-eyed bushbaby. Kids could play “spot the bushbaby” with this book if they wanted to. It certainly does appear to pop up in every pic. The full range of Juan’s talents are put to the test with this book. From the sprinkled flour on a tabletop to the silky hairs on a great black monkey’s tail, textures seem to leap out at the viewer. And, as always, each painting is imbued with an odd inner light. They glow and pulse with deepening shades and tones. Best that you see it first-hand to appreciate it.
Should you wish to pair this Kenyan tale with a picture book, set in the Cameroon, of equal beauty, consider reading both, “You Are a Kenyan Child” alongside Lloyd Alexander’s, “The Fortune-Tellers”, for a truly eye-popping storytime. Altogether, this is a gorgeous tale, easily one of the most beautiful you’ll find. A necessary addition to any and all library shelves. Top drawer.