Written by Gloria Whelan
Illustrated by Peter Sylvada
Sleeping Bear Press, 2007, 32 pp.
Yatandou, only eight, lives and works in a Mali village with her family. While she would prefer to be outside with her friends or her goat, she must take on the responsibilities of the women in her culture. Her daily struggles are portrayed in this story as she spends three hours a day pounding millet kernels, something a machine can do in seconds. The women of the village each contribute their part through gender specific daily chores and responsibilities. They save their hard earned money to buy a grinding machine that will save time and allow them to begin attending school. In order for Yatandou to contribute her part, she must part from something very dear to her, but this sacrifice is not thought about twice as she knows the importance of contributing to the community as a whole. When the machine finally arrives, all the women’s dreams begin coming true as they can now spend time learning to read and write, since they do not have to spend hours upon hours pounding millet kernels.
Sleeping Bear Press, a company dedicated to publishing rich cultural content within unique picture books, published this book in 2007. Yatandou is part of the Tales of the World series, written to help children better understand cultures around the world through relatable picture books. Of the nine books within this series, Whelan is the author of six. Gloria Whelan traveled to Africa to better understand the culture of her work. Through her experience, two things stuck out to her: the beauty of the land and how hard the Africans had to work for basic necessities. In her descriptive and detailed writing, these two pieces are represented. However, because Africa is such a large continent, it is unclear as to which country in Africa she visited. The countries within Africa can vastly differ from one to the next. More specifically, Mali is a vast country with diverse villages. By clustering Mali together as if the customs and struggles are shared throughout the country, readers lose sight of the diversity within the continent of Africa and the countries throughout Africa.
This absent detail may be the reason for some misrepresentations of Mali and the family structure in this story. The family represented in Yatandou is depicted as a nuclear family. However, typically families in Mali are extended families (Ware, 2008). Whether it is a biased view towards family structure or a detail that was overlooked or assumed to be true throughout Africa, this may place inaccurate stereotypes on the Mali culture. A teachable opportunity that was missed within the texts is the struggle they face with water shortage. Women of Mali can spend up to nine hours per day fetching water (Rich, 2011). Whelan’s (2007) mere mention of “Mother begins her long walk to the water hole in the dark” (p. 4) does not portray the depth of water struggles faced by these women and young girls.
The illustrator, Peter Sylvada, creates vivid paintings that encapsulate the landscape and mood of an African village. These paintings contribute to the story by allowing the reader to picture the author’s theme of hope and sacrifice. However the accuracy of some details may be called into question. There is no evidence that Sylvada has been to Africa, leaving room for stereotypes in precise details. On page five, Sylvada’s paints a picture of Yatandou bare from the waist up. Women of Mali are typically fully clothed (Ware, 2008). While there are a number of villages in Africa where being topless is a part of the culture, Mali is not one of those countries.
Though specific details of the Malian culture lack authenticity, much of this story is based on true struggles within African cultures. The foreword in the book allows the reader to build background knowledge on the grinding machine and what is already being done to restore this continent and provide villagers with appropriate tools to lead successful lives and minimize tedious manual labor that takes many females away from education and their childhood. The author focuses on an actual problem within this culture, but, at times, had an opportunity to elaborate on the harshness faced by women and young girls and only provided a statement or vague description.
Though this book is written from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl, the perspectives of women, men, and male children are also told through the secondary characters such as her mother and brother. Through Yatandou’s narrative, she is able to express the struggles everyone in the village is faced with, not just her personal struggles. The theme of hope and sacrifice is captured through the daily life of children in a Mali community. The author integrated African folklore in describing Yatandou’s worries and fears. Language from Mali is integrated into the story in a manner that is understandable through the context.
The power struggles faced by women in Mali are highlighted in this book through their roles and lack of opportunities. Because of the lack of resources within the community, the women miss out on many facets of life that men do not. Whelan was able to show the impact that the grinding machine had on the opportunities women were able to take advantage of. Though women were expected to do many of the daily household chores, they missed out on anything outside of these responsibilities because of the lack of time. The grinding machine opened many doors for the women and Whelan was able to capture those opportunities in this book.
This book relates to others written about different parts of Africa such as Beatrice’s Goat (Page McBrier, 2001) Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (Jeanette Winter, 2008) and One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference (Kate Smith Milway, 2008). Though these books are set in different villages, they allow readers to understand the theme of hope and sacrifice each African village faces through different stories relevant to that culture. Another common ground that connects these books is the focus of gender roles within African cultures. The missed opportunities of women and young girls due to their daily responsibilities are also highlighted.
Whelan wrote this book to bring an understanding of African cultures to children and inspire others to help improve the quality of life by providing an awareness of multifunctional platforms. Children will be able to make many connections to this story as they become aware of the differences in resources between their own culture and African cultures. Commodities many expect and take for granted in one country are the same commodities others struggle with in their countries.
Rich, J. (March 18, 2011) Walking for water or surfing the net – what would you rather be doing? Retrieved from http://www.wateraidamerica.org/about_us/newsroom/walking_for_water_or_surfing_the_net_what_would_you_rather_be_doing.aspx
Ware, T. (2008). The coming of the millet machine [ Review of the book Yatandou]. Africa Access. Retrieved from http://africaaccessreview.org/aar/detail.aspx?r=1904
Whitney Young, University of North Texas, Denton, TX
WOW Review, Volume V, Issue 3 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/v-3/