Anna Carries Water
written by Olive Senior, illustrated by Laura James
(Tradewind Books, 2013)
Anna desperately wants to be able to carry the water home on her head, like her older and bigger brothers and sisters. Every day after school, the children make their way in single file down to the spring, past the field of Mister Johnson’s cows (of which Anna is afraid), and help each other to fill an assortment of containers: but when it comes to Anna’s turn they are briskly unsympathetic with her attempts to carry her small can on her head, telling her just to use both hands. As her sister Doris explains later, she doesn’t need to worry because, ‘As soon as you are old enough to learn, you will learn.’ Understandably enough, this matter-of-fact common sense does nothing to dampen Anna’s determination, but the catalyst for success comes from an unexpected quarter…
The book’s Jamaican setting comes across loud and clear, without it ever being specifically stated – right from the two ‘doctor birds’ or Jamaican streamertails on the cover, hovering by Anna’s head. The story emanates a sense of happiness and family love and support. Olive Senior captures beautifully Anna’s earnest perseverance to succeed at a skill that is just beyond her, whilst her family looks on with apparent unconcern, because they know that actually there’s nothing to worry about: and then, of course, they all rejoice at her success.
It is a bonus that Anna Carries Water is a physically large book, satisfying to hold, as it does justice to the wonderful, larger-than-life, bright, bright illustrations. The people, as well as the farm animals and butterflies, bugs, birds and lizards that populate the story, all convey a three-dimensional solidity, and they leap from the page in their contrast with the surreal interplay of flat and lush landscape backgrounds. The illustrations home in on details, creating unusual visual perspectives, like the water gushing from the river standpipes. Readers also see rather than read that Anna carries the water on her head, maybe even before Anna herself realises. The illustrations reinforce the localised setting and fill in information about Anna’s life – how her sister Karen never has her nose out of a book, even when she’s carrying water; how, when the narrative says they need water ‘for cooking […] for washing dishes […] for cleaning teeth’, there are cakes in abundance – a gorgeously iced one ready to eat, cakes baking in the oven, and Anna, grinning so that her pearly white teeth show, busy helping Mama with the mixing bowl for the next one, while behind them, the dishes are piling up in the sink.
Whilst Anna Carries Water has a strong cultural identity, young children everywhere will be able to empathise with Anna’s frustration and jubilation, and perhaps her irrational fear of cows as well. Another important facet of the book is that, although in itself it is a happy, loving story, slightly older readers might be drawn to serious questions about the availability of clean water and why children like Anna and her siblings have to do the hard daily chore of filling containers in the first place.