Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review: Happy Birthday Jamela!

Story and pictures by Niki Daly. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006. We found this latest adventure of Jamela in the library this week. Last winter I reviewed Where's Jamela? and found it to be delightful. In Happy Birthday Jamela she is up to her old tricks. She goes shopping with her mother and grandmother Gogo to buy a party dress and shoes for her birthday. She finds the perfect pair of princess shoes but her mother wants her to have strong sensible school shoes. When they get home Jamela "wished that, somehow, when she opened the box, she'd find the Princess Shoes inside. But when she looked, a pair of strong black school shoes lay there like heavy bricks. They smelled nice - but they could never, ever be birthday girl shoes." This is an example of the poetry and charm of Daly's writing. He manages to capture the child's point of view perfectly.

She gets an idea to decorate the shoes with sparkly, glittery treasure bits. She is so excited to show her mother the decorated shoes, but her mother reacts with anger and sends her out of the house. Siting on the curb Jamela talks to the neighbors about her predicament. Fortunately Lily, the artist living down the road happens by and she is delighted with the decorated shoes. She suggests they make more to sell in the market and the next day they do. The shoes are a big hit and they make enough money for Jamela to pay her mother back and then some. She ends up getting both party and school shoes for birthday presents. I really like how Jamela is creative and bubbly and bursting with the joy of life. I adore Daly's illustrations of her. His watercolors perfectly capture the soul and spirit of this charming little girl. Daly is one of those artists you just have to wonder over - how can he make such evocative, expressive paintings of their faces with just a few lines and a wash of color? It's a beautiful mystery to me.

This book was just published last year but it reminds me a bit of what I have read about Daly's older book Jamela's Dress. In that one Jamela was dancing around in some beautiful fabric her mother had purchased to make a special dress. Jamela ruined the fabric, angering her mother. As it happens a photographer took pictures of her dancing and sold them for a good price. Jamela gets part of the profit and is able to pay her mother back. I like the theme of joyful creativity, celebrating beauty with abandon, and ingenious schemes for making money to make up for extravagant mistakes. Jamela is a strong, thoughtful, vibrant girl character who makes a dramatic impact on the world for good. She runs into difficulty but always find a way to salvage the situation, with the help of the loving adults around her.

Another particularly nice thing about these books is that they are so multicultural. Because they are set in modern South Africa they are populated with adults and children of every skin tone and ethnicity. There is no special mention of this diversity, it is just part of normal life. There are a scattering of Xhosa words and phrases in the book, including the Happy Birthday song, which makes it clear that this is a particularly South African story. Buddy likes that about the book and wants me to sing Happy Birthday to him in Xhosa at his birthday coming up. I hope I am up to the task.

I thought it might be possible that Buddy would not be interested in a picture book about a girl shopping for party dresses and shoes, but that was not the case. I think he was willing to roll with that theme because it is so interesting to see how Jamela will deal with her mother's anger and her shoe predicament. He has begun to express desire to have the clothes, shoes and toys of his five year old peers, and is becoming aware of the difference between what I want to buy and what he wants me to buy for him. It is a fascinating dilemma for a child. There is also an illustration of the birthday party where Jamela is trying on her gift party shoes. One of her guests, a boy about five or six, is quietly observing the sparkly shoes with a contemplative look on his face. Buddy and I speculate that this little boy would like to try them on, even if they are girl's shoes. The depth of that conflict is enough to put this book on the golden shelf for us.

Daly is an award winning author of a long list of books and a brilliant career. Take a look at some of his other titles whenever you get a chance. If you would like to see some of the illustrations and text of this particular one go to this link for Google books and see a preview. I am loving this new feature of Google books. Have you explored it yet?

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