The Amazing Tree
by John Kilaka
(North-South Books, 2009)
In this retelling of an African folktale the animals are hungry and there’s only one tree that has fruit on it – but the animals can’t get at the fruit. Rabbit has what they all agree is an ‘excellent idea’, to go and ask wise Tortoise. Only, they won’t let her go as she’s too small. A succession of delegates chosen from among the larger animals fails to return with the simple answer that wise Tortoise gives them, and in the end, Rabbit herself goes and is, of course, successful.
When I read the story with my young sons, we absolutely agreed that they should have managed the task, which was to ‘call the tree by its name’ – but we could also empathise with the animals as we had some difficulty in remembering the Kiswahili name ourselves, although we certainly had it off pat by the end..
Tanzanian story-teller and artist John Kilaka originally collected the story from the Fipa tribe of southwest Tanzania and translated it into Kiswahili; his son Kilaka Kenny then translated it into English, ready to be adapted by North-South books. The story is narrated with verve and a freshness about the dialogue that make it a great readaloud. However, what really had us riveted were the illustrations. John Kilaka has developed his own style that combines bright colors and traditional patterns. The animals were intriguing not just because they were dressed in clothes, but because the shapes under the clothes were distinctly anthropomorphic, so that the illustrations make you do a double-take. We enjoyed John Kilaka’s thought-provoking afterword too, where he talks about ‘Collecting African Stories’.
A few months ago I reviewed The Magic Bojabi Tree by Dianne Hofmeyr and Piet Grobler (Frances Lincoln, 2013), a retelling of the same story but with a different cast of animals and different ‘magic words’. The two books would complement each other very well; and comparing the two versions, in terms of both the narrative and the illustrations, would add an extra dimension to children’s enjoyment of the story – and maybe even encourage them to think about how they could retell/illustrate the story themselves.