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A Hero for Our Day
on January 19, 2013
Right now the talk is all about Kadir Nelson's recently released I Have a Dream, a wonderful book about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speech. But I'm holding an ARC of his next picture book in my hands: Nelson Mandela. The front cover is simply a portrait of Mandela, no title. You can find the title on the back cover.
Where I Have a Dream captures a moment in time, Nelson Mandela is very much a biography. Most pages have about a paragraph of text, though a few have more. The book would make a good read-aloud for about 3rd-5th graders.
We begin with a boy named Rolihlahla. Already he is being changed by the world around him: "Rolihlahla played barefooted on the grassy hills of Qunu. He fought boys with sticks and shot birds with slingshots. The smartest Madiba child of thirteen, he was the only one chosen for school. His new teacher would not say his Xhosa name. She called him Nelson instead."
The first spread is done almost entirely in silhouette, with the boys and the hill they are playing on shown in black. The sun has just barely risen over the hill behind them, and a small slice of green plain and blue mountain is seen off to the left. A few houses sit on the plain. It's a stunning image, and something of a departure from Kadir's expected human figures. The wide-angle painting makes a poignant introduction to the next spread, where we read that 9-year-old Nelson is being sent miles away to live with a powerful chief after his father's death. The image is a close-up of two people in profile, with Nelson's mother on the left and a young Nelson on the right. She holds his unhappy face, staring into his eyes.
In his new life, Nelson listens to stories told by the elders of old Africa. We read that he grew up and attended school in Johannesburg, "where Africans were poor and powerless." Nelson became a lawyer and began to help his people. The story continues, showing the experience of apartheid and Nelson's activism and long imprisonment. "His children grew up. Relatives passed away. South Africa began to fall apart... Nelson snuck a message to the people: `I will return.'" And he did return. At last Nelson was free. Apartheid ended, and Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.
Kadir Nelson's storytelling is clear and powerful. His illustrations capture the souls of his subjects, especially Nelson Mandela. Many of the pages in the book are quite dark in tone, but the last two spreads are bright with color and sunshine, lifting like a song. A striking book that you can read and treasure. An author's note gives additional information about Mandela and apartheid in South Africa.
It's been said that children in our day lack real heroes, reduced to looking up to pouting pop stars, millionaire athletes, and fictional superheroes. Give them books like this one. Give them heroes.