Picture Book / Biography / Elementary
Katherine Tegen Books
Text and illustrations presents a biography of the former South African president best known for his political activism and fight to end apartheid.
A vividly and beautifully illustrated book for young children on the life of Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, the high quality of the illustrations is not matched by the accompanying text. The text raises two concerns: what is emphasized and what is left out.
Recognizing that in a book oriented for young readers there is limited space for narrative, I am concerned with the author’s emphasis on ancestors. Early in the book (there are no page numbers) the author writes, ”Nelson was nine when his father joined the ancestors in the sky,” providing young readers, the vast majority of whom have no understanding of the role of ancestors in African cultures, with no explanatory context. Later in the book, the author writes, ”Speaking out was against the law and Nelson was arrested and jailed for a fortnight [a term unfamiliar to most U.S. readers] with a hundred men. They danced and sang, calling on the ancestors to join the fight for freedom.” While it is technically correct that many of the songs that were used in the liberation struggle had roots in traditional songs targeting ancestors, the author’s statement, leaves the impression that the primary purpose of these songs was to intercede with the ancestors, ignoring the central role of music in strengthening commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice while attracting wider participation in the movement. The final use of ancestors in the text is on the following page, ”The ancestors sent their daughter Winnie to stand next to Nelson.” There is nothing in Mandela’s autobiography to suggest that he believed that his initial meeting of Winnie was at the intervention of the ancestors. I want to make it clear, that I am in no way belittling or de-emphasizing the importance of ancestors within the cultures of South Africa. However, in a children’s book where there is no room for explaining concepts that are unfamiliar to the young readers, I fear that the manner in which the author uses the term will at best confuse the readers, or at worst, reinforce exoticized perceptions of African cultures and societies.
In his presentation of Apartheid policies and practices, the author privileges social segregation — European only beaches, parks, theaters, etc.– what has been termed petite Apartheid. This is fine given the intended audience, but it is incredible that the author does not mention the core of grand Apartheid, political exclusion, severe economic exploitation, and egregious social discrimination in areas of education, healthcare and housing that were at the center of the ANC’s and Mandela’s opposition to Apartheid.
In spite to these weaknesses, I still recommend this book. While incomplete, it is a good tribute to one of the truly great human beings of the past century.
John Metzler, Michigan State University
Published in Africa Access Review (December 16, 2013)
Copyright 2013 Africa Access