Another title on the Cybils’ Non-fiction Picture Book shortlist last year is 14 Cows for America, written by Carmen Agra Deedy in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, and illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. This is the story of a Maasai community’s decision to make a symbolic gift of cows to the USA after the terrorist attack on New York in September 2001.
14 Cows for America certainly looks like a beautiful children’s picture book. The full-page spreads glow with Kenyan portraits and Kenyan landscapes. The text is simple and clear, forming events into a fable.
But as I read it, I kept wondering whether this content holds more appeal for children, or for adults? There are no young characters, or child stand-ins. Instead, the central figure is a medical student, and the major decision-makers are tribal elders. The text alludes to the precipitating event of the terrorist attacks delicately; American adults would have no difficulty recognizing the allusions, but most of today’s picture-book readers probably have no memory of 2001.
Does 14 Cows for America offer a meaningful narrative? The “plot” involves a distant conflict, no character growth, and a purely symbolic resolution. (The Maasai actually keep the fourteen cows.) Gonzalez carefully hides the face of the American ambassador, so he can never be more than a symbol.
Picture books are supposed to need at least a dozen interesting, visually varied scenes—not just the same characters talking in the same space. 14 Cows for America basically shows two related events:
- The medical student comes home to his community, bringing his story of seeing the terrorist attack.
- Some time later, the diplomat arrives to take symbolic possession of those “sacred, healing cows.”
In the end, 14 Cows for America struck me as more of a thick greeting card, made to express a solidarity of feeling between giver and recipient, than a narrative or informational book. It fulfills that function well—as I said, the pictures are beautiful, and the events well told to produce emotional meaning. But I suspect 14 Cows for America wouldn’t work if it couldn’t take advantage of its exotic setting and exotic behavior.