08 September 2010

Pondering Sacred Cows

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.”
Imagine trying to build a picture book around a European community that hears about the 2001 terrorist attacks, decides to organize a public mourning ceremony, and then goes through with it.

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.

13 comments:

Monica Edinger said...

Coincidently, I feature this book today in a post about 9/11. When I first saw the book I too had some concerns about it overfocusing on the exotic, but as a vehicle for considering 9/11 along with some of the other books I mention, I think it could work.

Rasco from RIF said...

Well, I have just posted a piece on 9/11 in which I reference Monica's posting about this book (and much more)relating it as well to a posting I did last year on 14 Cows. I have seen this book used with all ages elementary children quite effectively. Perhaps more than anything it has helped the children outside the NYC, DC and PA areas see/feel the enormity of 9/11 given this country far away had such deep feelings about the losses.

J. L. Bell said...

That seems to fit my impression that 14 Cows from America is “made to express a solidarity of feeling” rather than to tell a story of individuals.

Rasco from RIF said...

And my feeling is that in this case as well as others I can recall, that is fine (solidarity rather than tell a story) if that is the way it's perceived, real or no. I see it very much telling the story of a people and their values. I really don't subscribe to a picture book needing "at least a dozen interesting, visually varied scenes—not just the same characters talking in the same space." I know of award winners that don't meet that criteria...but all a matter of personal preference and beliefs, I assume.

J. L. Bell said...

One thing I didn’t get from 14 Cows is a sense of this Maasai community except as the group related to America. They have trouble visualizing the attack on America, then they feel sorry for America, so they make a symbolic gift to America. The fact that Maasai culture is so different from that of the urban West gives their gesture its power for American readers, but the book doesn’t show any complexity in that culture.

Those cows are obviously important to the Maasai, but it’s not really clear why. What do they do with their days when they‘re not thinking about America? What are the challenges of their lives? What are the pressures on their society? How do individuals in the community disagree? What are Maasai family structures, religious beliefs, and relations with other Kenyans? None of that is in the book.

Rasco from RIF said...

As I read your series of thoughtful questions in your last post, I realized the persons with whom I have discussed this book most since its publication are those individuals I knew best through my 18+ years of public policy work, primarily in the broad field of family policy; only since coming to RIF have I narrowed to a more focused effort on literacy drawing on the first careers I had in classroom teaching and family counseling. In those discussions with my family policy friends, we were discussing the book with the questions you asked already answered for us as Masai people are quite often looked to as standing out from other similar tribes because of their reverence for children...not always exhibited as we westerners would "revere" but nonetheless a reverence. As part of that knowledge we also have always found interesting the high value placed on cattle alongside children. A Masai family's "wealth" is often judged jointly on number of cattle and number of children - high in one, low in the other and you are often perceived as "poor." For these factors and many others known about the Masai, the book to us then showed a high level of sacrifice in the way they knew best. It would be interesting to explore how to incorporate some of these issues/values/daily livestyles into the children's book. But enough, Rasco, enough.

J. L. Bell said...

Inside 14 Cows I glimpsed the possibility of a more traditional protagonist-driven story about Kimeli. He was apparently a poor Maasai boy who earned a scholarship to study medicine in New York, which of course exposed him to very different cultures. Such a story might not show either the Maasai culture or American culture in a wholly positive light, however, and I sense that 14 Cows was motivated by a search for something positive out of an awful event.

Rasco from RIF said...

I can see where one would perhaps have the outlook on the story you do; my outlook is based on my reading of background clips that appeared before the book was conceived but after Kimeli had gone home post-9/11 and based as well in part on my visit with Kimeli and later with a colleague of his at Stanford where he was attending school in 2001. On 9/11 Kimeli was in NYC in a meeting at the UN with an official of his country; they happened to walk outside as the whole incident unfolded at the twin towers.

Anonymous said...

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. Of course, what they did know was horrific--("And isn't it true that people threw themselves out of the windows because they didn't want to be burned up?") 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.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing your experience with 14 Cows in the classroom. In the blog she refers to at top, Monica Edinger notes some other picture books about the September 2001 attacks. Perhaps they work best as a group, providing different information and perspectives.

Peachtree Publishers said...

I've really enjoyed reading the discussion going on here. Being someone who has been a part of this book from the first draft through the editorial process and printing, I may have a different perspective. 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 think you're right, that in a lot of ways this is a book for adults. I think that books serve so many purposes though and that it is ok for this to be about solidarity and for people who remember what happened. However, it is also a way to start a dialog and introduce kids to a painful event and to show that for every bad thing that happens, there is a good thing as well.

Lastly, I was also disappointed that the cows did not come to America. That was the intention of the Maasai, but for various reasons (I am not sure on the specifics), the American Government thought it best for the Maasai to care for the cattle for us. As thanks, we purchased Maasai jewelry and art that toured as a way to teach people about the gift of the cows and the Maasai tribe.

Lita Judge said...

Hi John, thanks for posting this whole set of non-fiction picture book reviews from last year's Cybils. It's great to see your thought process on these books.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Lita. I should note that (a) I’m writing only of my own thoughts, not those of the other judges in this category; and (b) in some cases I’m not writing all of my thoughts on each book, just those that still struck me as interesting.