The first book in the Animal Stories series by Barefoot Books is simply delightful.
Reminiscent of Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare, The Tortoise’s Gift is a lesson in perseverance and humility from Zambia, retold by Lari Don. It focuses on a group of animals during a hot summer. The rain has stopped falling and nothing is growing. Soon all the animals are very hungry and very thirsty. The old rabbit tells of a wonderful tree that will grow all the favourite fruits of the animals. When they find the tree, however, there is nothing growing on it, and they figure out that they must call the tree by its name before it will wake up and grow fruit.
No one knows the name of the wonderful tree. Only the mountain is old enough to know it. Several animals volunteer to go to the mountain and ask for the wonderful tree’s name. The brave lion, the big elephant and the clever chimps all take it in turns to travel to the mountain and ask for the name of the wonderful tree. However, each of them forgets the name before they return because they get distracted by how wonderful they are about halfway back, and begin indulging in some unrelated, self-serving activity that makes the name fall out of their heads.
The tortoise then volunteers. The other animals think he is too slow, but that, as you may have guessed, works to his advantage. Slowly and steadily, he goes to the mountain, obtains the name of the tree, slowly and steadily goes back to the forest, without getting distracted on the way; and when he speaks to the tree by name, very soon everyone is chowing down on their favourite fruit.
Designed for early readers (a Year 2 class in St Anne’s Catholic Primary School in Caversham apparently helped at the test stage), the vocabulary is simple and the sentences are well structured and short. Nothing is lost in the simplification, however. The characters are just as fun and engaging as they would be if you spent hours going into a lengthy character study in a longer book. In part, this is thanks to the brilliant illustrations by Melanie Williamson. It is rare to see such a great pairing of colour and text. The pictures fill the page and the text is layered over them. Any ‘white space’ is tailored in so sublimely that you hardly notice it.
I look forward to reading the next one, Never Trust a Tiger, and further books in the series. I have already added them to the Amazon wish list for my four month old.