18 September 2010

The 14 Cows Discussion

Last week I posted my thoughts on 14 Cows for America which generated some pithy responses at The Horn Book’s Read Roger and longer discussion in the comments here. I decided to highlight some of those remarks.

An anonymous educator reported:

I found this book beautiful and moving, but it didn't work as well as I expected in class. Since the September 11th attacks happened before many of my schoolchildren were born, I had first to review the events with them. . . . After we'd talked about the attacks, I tried to give them some background about how important cattle are to the Masai, and they could follow some of that, but then they felt disillusioned when they discovered that the cattle didn't leave the country.

Developmentally, they were unable to grasp the idea of a symbolic gift, and after everything that had gone before, the gift of the cows struck them as anti-climactic and impractical. ("Why didn't they sell the cows and send the money to the relatives of the people who died?") After reading the book aloud to many different grades of elementary school children, I came to the conclusion that it may be a beautiful picture book, but as a picture book for children, it is not entirely successful.
Someone from the publisher, Peachtree, discussed how the book developed:
The original draft did contain a lot more information about the Maasai, their tribe and their culture, but it felt too clumsy as a story. The sparse text really seemed to convey the grace of the gift and of the Maasai themselves. Having Kimeli join the project was such a key part in making this book happen as well. He was a cultural advisor in many ways, making sure that clothing, jewelry, even the way the children stood while greeted was accurate. The afterword included more information, as well as a website we put together, http://14cowsforamerica.com/, for people wanting to know more. It is certainly a book that inspires people to search out more information.
I’m not surprised that trying to make this anecdote into a more traditional nonfiction book for kids produced clumsy results. It is what it is: a description and echo of an expression of sympathy from one people to another. It’s not a story about children, or even much of a story at all. One anecdote isn’t an easy door into understanding another culture.

As a culture, we assume that all books with about 32 oversized pages and color illustrations and sparse text are meant for children. But not all those books work the same way, or speak to the same audience. Perhaps the problem isn’t with the books, but with the assumption.

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