Story is so critical to us as human beings. Literally every culture has storytelling as a fundamental component of socialization and community. In many cultures oral history is passed on from generation to generation through stories, some of which seem mystical and fantastical to outsiders but which, upon further examination, speak volumes about the values that are central to that culture's way of life.
I love folk tales for this reason - you can really get a sense of what makes a particular population tick when you examine the elements that occur over and over again in their stories (it begs the question, doesn't it, what outsiders would think of a certain spate of vampire lit -- most especially sparkly ones!). In East Africa, like other regions, stories are related not only to connect with the past but to instill a sense of pride, of connection with the land and the people who came before. Animals are often central figures in these tales, because animals represent character traits and nature and the gifts the earth gives to us. Which makes them an ideal type of tale to share with young children, who still are in a sense of awe around animals of every sort.
Sprout's been going through a particular fascination lately with elephants. I wish I could say this was due to some great developmental teaching or experience, but really it's probably because there's a Thomas episode he likes where one of the trains encounters a tunnel that's blocked by an elephant (don't ask). So when he pulled the book Beautiful Bananas by Elizabeth Laird off the shelf at the library recently, he immediately screamed "Elephant, Mama, elephant!". (Thank goodness our librarians are indulgent about excitable child noise!)
Well, we had to stop and read the book right away, because not only does the cover feature the aforementioned elephant, but also bananas, a frog, and a little girl with brown skin. Perfection, no? And the perfection carries through the story, which is a circular tale that comes from East Africa. Our heroine, Beatrice, is headed off to visit her granddad with a bunch of bananas to give as a gift. Right off the bat she runs into a giraffe, whose "tufty tail" sweeps the bananas off Beatrice's head and into the river nearby. Beatrice is upset, but the giraffe offers her some flowers for Granddad instead -- which is a great solution, until a bunch of bees come along and the flowers get crushed (here Sprout always whispers "Bees!" and shivers with the delicious dangerousness of these stingy critters). But the bees make it right by giving Beatrice some honey, which is taken by monkeys.
And on and on it goes, each page featuring an African animal or insect that is more beguiling than the last. Really, those monkeys? You can see why Beatrice isn't too upset, because they're so darn cute. Illustrator Liz Pichon brings Laird's funny and fantastic story to life in just the right way. Beatrice is vivacious and bubbly, whether she's being frightened by a lion or sneezed on by an elephant. And the colorful spreads provide plenty of fun details, especially the last one that features each of the animals Beatrice encounters.
This is a simply delightful tale and a great way to introduce young children to folklore. Plus, for us, it was fun to point out to Sprout that he once lived in a home much like Beatrice's and may just have been told a similar story by his Ethiopian relatives. Love it when a great book helps make important connections!
Beautiful Bananas by Elizabeth Laird, published by Peachtree Publishers
Sample: "Some naughty monkeys see the honeycomb. 'We like honey!' they cry. They snatch it away from Beatrice. All the honey drips onto the ground."
Bonus: more about author Elizabeth Laird