Africa is vast, and this is a taste of it. Served up like hors d'oeuvres, there are six chapters on different aspects of this rich, haunting, troubled continent accompanied by full-color photographs. Photojournalist John Chiasson, who spent five years in Africa, introduces older children and young adults to nomadic desert life, tribal farming, city life, (Dakar) coastal fishing, river life, and the Ethiopian Highlands.
Africans live in close relationship to nature, and Chiasson carefully shows the dependency of each life style upon nature's bounties and rages; the dry season dictates where nomadic families will live, the possibility of drought. The rainy season is for crops, while the unrelenting sun and sandstorms make farming difficult. Along the great waterways, frequented by hippopotamuses and elephants, flamingos, and pelicans, the men on the river boats teach their children their craft.
The nomads of the Sahel furnish us with the most interesting reading, perhaps because their life style is the most distant from ours. Though they survive many hardships, (the rain will either come, or they will perish), there is a quiet beauty to these people, full of dignity and mystery, and as they obey laws and traditions we cannot see, we find ourselves wondering at our own lives.
The ironies of modern technology are everywhere, as remote villagers watch television in the desert, this book reminds us of the challenges this complex and enormous piece of the world is facing. These challenges we too must meet, along with our children, but only if our humanity can respond. "African Journey" can nudge this response right out of our hearts.
SHAKER LANE by Alice and Martin Provensen, illustrated by the authors (Viking Kestral: $14.95).
For 43 years, Mr. and Mrs. Provensen--Alice and Martin to you--have been making books for children. They have garnered acclaim, including a Caldecott, and now "Shaker Lane" will certainly heap more--deservedly so--upon them.
The queer tribe of folks on Shaker Lane will eventually have to leave their homes to make way for a reservoir. We have a portrait of America here, of so-called progress, of the sacrifice of organic, unpredictable rural life for the neat, controlled pleasures of suburbia. The tale is told in simple, understated prose, but the characters have colorful names: Bobbie Violet, Old Man Van Sloop, the Whipple boys, and the Herkimer sisters, who start the whole thing by selling off their farmland piece by piece. The Shaker Lane population is not yuppie ambitious, but seem a contented, if laissez-faire, lot.
The paintings are eloquent, full of careful observation, gorgeously colored, and, as they might say on Shaker Lane, suitable for framing. The eccentricities of people living to the beat of a drum we in America don't listen to anymore, are quietly celebrated. The dogs, the abandoned cars, the rubbish, the broken glass, the bedsprings, are painted as if they were precious artifacts.
I don't know why this is a children's book. I am unsure that the picture book set of 5 and 6 can appreciate the sociological scrutiny, or the exquisite art. It's the librarians and the parents who will luck out with this book, and possibly the older siblings.
Or perhaps work of this caliber suggests that there is artifice in the category itself.