I thought that it would be good to start the New Year off with a book that is both intensely moving and … beautiful. I actually leapt for joy when I discovered that we already have Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and artwork done by Leo & Diane Dillon in our community libraries. This was only published in 2011, so I am glad we already have it here in Singapore. I also thought that it is a perfect contribution for Book Talk Tuesday hosted every week by Kelly Butcher and for our theme on Poetry – since the entire book is written in beautiful verse.
An Ode to the Taken and Their Descendants. I thought that as we look forward to what 2012 has in store for us, it is important for us to remember the not-so-distant past. It would be good to gather life lessons that we could glean from the truths as reflected in children’s picture books, rather than be buried in writing down a few hastily-pronounced resolutions (that hardly ever make a difference).
In the Author’s Note of Patricia C. McKissack she shared her inspiration for this book:
For years I have been curious about how African literature and music portray those who were captured in the slave trade. I am certain that African mothers cried for their lost children, their brothers and sisters, their neighbors and friends. But I could not find any lyrics that a grieving parent might have sung. Where were the stories – told and retold – so the lost ones would never be forgotten? Where were the rituals or ceremonies that showed how Africans mourned the Taken? Where were the dances, annual feasts, and fasting days? None found. Yet certainly the captured were loved and missed.
I wanted to write about the lost ones.
The very last poem shared in the book happens to be my favorite. It is entitled Comes the Silence. I know how strange it might seem to begin a review of a book with its ending, and I normally do not reveal what happens in the end, but I feel that there is such wisdom in these words, I can not help but share snippets of it:
The last part of a story is the silence That comes at the end. A time to think, to reflect. The drums are still now. They no longer warn us To beware Of the men who steal upriver… Countless numbers are gone forever, stolen. Griots still tell Of Musafa, Who was but one of millions captured; Of Dinga, Who was but one of many fathers who mourned. Loved ones are never forgotten When we continue to tell their stories.
The Elements of a Father’s Love. At its very core, the book speaks of a father’s love – the ageless narrative of life, love, and loss. There are 21 poems – all richly and vividly illustrated in the trademark artwork of the Dillons. As we get to know Dinga, the Blacksmith – revered as a master craftsman, a powerful magician – we also get to know him as a devoted father. When his wife died after giving birth, he was determined to raise his child on his own despite the village elders’ admonition and unsolicited advice:
The elder women of his village Argued against it, saying, ‘He will grow up wild Without the gentle hand of a mother To guide him. You must abide by custom: Take another wife, Or give the baby to a woman who is childless.” But Dinga could not be persuaded.
Much too often, we assume that the caring of the young should only be relegated to the mother’s capable hands. We forget that a father’s warmth, his gentleness, and his infinite patience and wisdom could likewise work wonders – and that a man, too, is more than capable of caring for his offspring. Dinga is provided magical assistance, though, by the mother elements: Earth (Dongi), Fire (Ngom-Gbi), Water (Dzhe-lo-wa) and Wind (Fe Fe). He sought the ministrations of the earth’s core to raise his only son.
As my eyes go over each line on the page, the verses sounded like music to my untrained ear. It also reminded me of The Lion King and Simba. The boy’s name here, however, is Musafa (“Only the Universe is Greater!”).
Power of Poetry. I find that it is only through poetry that we can speak of such anguish as the loss of one’s son – taken – simply because.
Agony! I should have gathered the wood myself. I should not have sent him aone. I should not have… Dinga tore his clothing and Threw dirt on his head as a sign of great sorrow.
When there are no words – poetry provides the music of lamentation – the dirge in the night that cries out in pain – the wailing of one’s soul distilled in clean lines and the luminous artwork of the Dillons.
This book has moved me deeply. It would be redundant to claim that this is a definite must-have in schools and in your shelves at home. These lines spoken by the Mother Elements as told to Musafa would be etched in my consciousness for a long time:
“Fear is a leopard; Courage renders him toothless. When the drumbeat changes, you must change the dance. Learn by reaching back with one hand While stretching forward with the other. Kings may come and go, but the family endures forever.”
Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack. Artwork by Leo & Diane Dillon. Schwartz, Wade Books, New York, 2011. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.
PictureBook Challenge Update: 1 of 120
Oh, Myra, this is heartbreaking, but I am glad that the story is being told. And that it is a poet who has put it into words.
Hi Maria, it is indeed a deeply moving book. 🙂 Only a poet can put such tragedies into words (evidently, I am biased this way). 🙂
I sat down in our bookstore and read the book; it is truly beautiful and heart-wrenching to imagine what we might do or think if we had experienced it. What a lovely thing McKissack has done by writing the words.
Hi Linda. There are times when words in narrative could not effectively capture these tortured moments of the soul. And I agree, Patricia McKissack has done the story such justice. And the artwork, oh the artwork. Lovelovelove the Dillons.
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