Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Leopard's Drum by Jessica Souhami

This Ashanti folktale tells of Osebo, the leopard, who is proud of his magnificent drum. He refuses to share it with the other animals and even refuses Nyame, the Sky-God’s request to borrow it. Nyame is angry and tells the other animals to find a way to bring him the drum and get a reward. Python, Elephant, Monkey all try to get the drum but they are not successful. Finally Achi-cheri, the tortoise is clever enough to trick Osebo and bring the drum to Nyame. This is a classic trickster tale pattern, where the smaller and weaker character is clever enough to outsmart the bold, arrogant stronger characters. Because it is an Ashanti tale the Sky-God Nyame is portrayed as a handsome, powerful Black man.

This combination of the humble tortoise’s creative problem-solving, the boastful leopard’s foolish blindness and the kind justice of the Sky-God is what makes folktales so satisfying for children. They recognize the values of fairness, generosity, cleverness and humility. They relate to the poor stature of the little tortoise when the other animals say “You haven’t got a chance, not a titchy little, weedy little creature like you.” We are certainly cheering for the tortoise when she replies “Well, I am going to try anyway.” In the end, when Nyame wants to reward Achi-cheri for bringing the drum he asks what she would like. “Achi-cheri looked round. All the other animals were looking jealous and cross. She thought for a moment. “Please, Nyame,” she said, “most of all I would like a hard shell to protect me from fierce animals.” Nyame laughed and gave her a tough, hard shell. And Achi-cheri the tortoise still wears it today.”

This is the perfect ending for this little gem of a story. My boys love it and your children will too. The illustrations are beautiful brightly colored cutouts reminiscent of the shadow puppets that Souhami has studied and used in puppet shows in London, where she now lives.

The edition we have in our library is told in both English and Bengali. It is published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books of London. They have other multicultural titles published in dual languages, including Rama and the Demon King by Jessica Souhami and Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch. It’s nice to expose young children to well loved stories in other languages. Just seeing the Bengali text printed on the page alongside the English can impress upon young ones that our ways are not the only ways, and our words are not the only words. It’s great to be able to share an African tale that is cherished by children in India, England and the United States, as well as many other countries.

While looking for links for The Leopard’s Drum I found this great site for buying books: Letterbox Library. If you are interested in building your collection of multicultural books and don’t know where to start, this can be a great resource for you. Check out their list of books recommended for Black History Month. Here’s how they describe their mission:
About Us - Letterbox Library is a non-profit driven workers co-operative. It was started twenty four years ago by two single mothers operating from home, who wished to provide multicultural and non-sexist books to children - offering essential topics and titles which were sadly neglected by mainstream booksellers. Over the years we have expanded but still hold firm to our co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Our books can be found within educational institutions, libraries and homes throughout the UK and abroad. Customers come to us primarily for our unique book selection service.

This sounds like just the place for me to start shopping!


kim said...

We love this book!

As well as Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, and Why Mosquitos Buzz in Peoples' Ears, and something called Jasper and the Giant (not in the African Tale tradition, but about compassion and humility).

Oooh, going to have to pull out Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain now, and my Ezra Jack Keats' titles.

Such simple, joy-filling illustrations, all. Feels like we're talking about summertime and ice cream, and reading circles on the floor of the library.

Shelley said...

We love it, too. D especially enjoys reading it with a friend who hasn't heard it yet... he LOVES being "in" on the knowledge that Achi-cheri has what it takes!

(And thanks for the other timely recommendations, Kim... Friday night is our big library night!)