Sunday, February 22, 2009

Review: "Sikulu & Harambe By the Zambezi River"

In Sikulu the Spider and Harambe the Hippo By the Zambezi River, the titular friends come to the aid of an older woman whose clothes have washed into the river after other animals won't. According to Nigerian-born author Kunle Oguneye, it's a retelling of an African folktale which parallels the biblical Good Samaritan story. This version emphasizes receiving a reward for good behavior and putting aside personal comfort in order to help someone.

It's always great to find storybooks set in other countries, and this one even has a set of pages in the back with information about Zambia and the animals, words, and people found in the book. This is the first in a planned series of books that will take Sikulu and Harambe to other African countries. The pictures are cute, although I found whatever method was used to color them distracting.

Bottom line? It's no instant classic, but I liked it.

My three-year old really liked this book. We happen to have a spider and hippo in our stuffed animal collection, and bringing them out helped him connect to the story. He dubbed them Sikulu and Harambe and made sure the spider rode around hanging onto the hippo's ears, just as Sikulu does in the pictures. He even carried both animals and the book to daycare to share with his friends. (His daycare provider gave the book a thumbs up.) Some of the book's novelty has worn off now, but it is still in regular rotation and receives a warm reception.

( published by Blue Brush Media, 2008, preschool/early elementary, $15 at they also sell stuffed spiders and hippos--or $11 at Amazon)

Review courtesy of Parent Reviewers--I received a free copy of the book. is an affiliate.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: "The Help"

I recently had a chance to read The Help, the debut novel of Kathryn Stockett.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, the book looks at the lives of black maids and the white women who employed them. The narration alternates between three characters--two black, one white--as they collaborate on a secret project to publish the life stories of several maids, a potentially controversial and dangerous goal in a community tearing apart as the fight against segregation progresses.

The three main characters were engaging and lively (the rest were a little one-note, especially the men). I genuinely cared for them, which added the sense of concern as they worked on their project while racial tensions rose around them. But in the end, their stories tied up so conveniently and neatly, that I suddenly felt I was reading a chick lit novel--an odd juxtaposition with the subject matter.

It was an entertaining read. But I have to admit, much about the the book left me uneasy. Take the first introduction of the characters. African-American Minny is known as the best cook in town--and is sassy and overweight to boot. Her friend Abileen, a long-suffering, nuturing woman who has raised over a dozen white children during her career as a domestic, has a special prayer connection with God. White Skeeter is a recent college grad chafing at the limited options available to her as a woman more interested in writing career than marriage (her hair grows longer and her hems shorter as she awakens to social issues). As interesting as the characters were, I wondered at times if they rose above the boxes in which they started. Hattie McDaniel's Mammy was entertaining, but she was still a stereotype, you know?

Skeeter never fully confronts the question of whether she is exploiting the maids for her own professional advancement (it's broached, but quickly left alone), nor the fact that her family's lifestyle depends on the depressed wages of black laborers. And despite Abileen and Minny's strength and life experience, it is naïve Skeeter who suggests that the maids' stories could carry political influence and sets the project in motion.

Bloggers in particular may be interested in what The Help suggests about the power of personal story to cross boundaries and effect change, a belief which inspires many of us to write. And readers interested in issues of race and class in Amercia will find much to explore, both within the story and on a meta-level about the book itself.

(Published by Putnam Adult, 2009, $17 at Amazon. Readers of my personal blog might want to know that there is a minor adoption storyline toward the end. This review was sponsored by Mother Talk. is an affiliate.)

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