Friday, December 01, 2006

Where"s Jamela?

The other day I had a late meeting and we were coming home from school a little later than usual. The moon was out in a sky that was growing dark. Buddy Boy said, “The moon is following us. Why is the moon following us?” I tried to explain that the moon is up so high that we can always see it. He insisted that it was following us. He thinks it shines in his window specially.

In the book Where’s Jamela? by Niki Daly Jamela thinks the stars outside her bedroom window are hers and they are looking down at her. She isn’t happy when her mother joyfully announces that she has a new job and they are moving to a better place where her Grandmother Gogo can live with them. She doesn’t like the fuss and bother of packing and she doesn’t want to loose all that she loves about their home. She thinks of how much she will miss her friends and the neighbors, the dogs barking, the chickens running around, the smells of cooking. Nevertheless, Mama and Gogo proceed with the packing and loading their friend Greasy Hands’ truck. In the confusion Jamela curls up inside her packing box and goes to sleep. The whole neighborhood is turned upside down with frantic looking for her, as you can imagine. When she wakes and pops up out of the box there is much rejoicing. Gogo climbs up in the truck and starts playing the piano. The neighborhood breaks out in dancing. They drive off with everyone singing a good-bye song and tears in Mama’s eyes.

At last they arrive in the suburbs and it turns out their new house is indeed very nice. Jamela finds new things to delight her and discovers that it is not so different from the old house. Even the stars that are looking in her window are the same. At night Mama and Gogo tuck her in and she drifts off to sleep in her new room under the same old sky.

That this is a story set in South Africa in the years after Apartheid is not immediately apparent, but in the rich illustrations one can see clues that this is not America. A close observer will note the fashions, the chickens, the occasional Zulu or Xhosa words and phrases, and the indication that they are moving up from a township to a suburb. One reviewer noted that there is a South African flag decorating Jamela’s purse on the opening page, a sign of the new South Africa.

An American child reading or hearing this story will not find it foreign because the story and the feeling are universal. Buddy Boy and Buster hate change just as much as Jamela. When Buster was five we moved into a new apartment and after he had been there about a month he started saying he was never going to leave. He planned to grow up and get married and rent the apartment directly above me if there wasn’t room for his wife and kids in ours. When I bought this house six years ago he hated the idea. It was a few years after we had been living here that he admitted to me that I had made the right decision. Change is never easy.

Niki Daly has an essay on the South African Children’s Forum from the 2004 IBBY Congress telling about how his picture books in the last 20 years cover “a tortured, insane, inspirational and never dull period that spans the last brutal years of Apartheid to ten giddy years of freedom in South Africa.” Although he is a middle aged white South African male people often think he is a Black woman. He says,

“Without becoming too reverent about books, I believe that good books have some power to heal. Better still, good books offer some protection against damage to the mind and soul of a child; in that good stories are always filled with a sense dignity and a message of hope. I certainly hope that my books do no harm and that in some way, what is good in them says something good about me that causes people to confuse me with a black woman - who in my mind remains a symbol of caring and compassion.”
I find that quite inspiring and I look forward to reading many of his other books.

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