First Come the Zebra is the first book highlighted in what’s going to be a series of posts exploring the particular reasons for selecting the titles in the Spirit of PaperTigers book set.
There was no doubt in my mind, after reading all the books under consideration for the project, that First Come the Zebra would be included in the final set, as I thought that it conveyed the spirit of PaperTigers in a very direct and clear way. However, when we started the discussions, a couple of people in the selection panel weren’t as ready as I was to call it a done deal. Thank heavens for different opinions!
The book tells the story of two boys from rivaling tribes who learn to overcome tribal hostilities and stereotypes to become friends. There were some initial considerations about the appropriateness of the title (some of our children, for instance, seemed puzzled that the book wasn’t about zebras), and also about the use of the savannah animals’ peaceful sharing of the grasslands as a metaphor for the idea that humans can learn to do it too. Some of us didn’t agree with it, arguing that, since animals don’t behave the way they do knowingly, or in the “spirit” of sharing, talking about the great animal migration wasn’t necessarily the best way to start the book.
I’m happy to say that, in the end, after a very amiable and interesting discussion, we saw eye to eye when it came to the essential: the great animal migration is a big part of rural Kenya’s world, and mentioning it up front does help create a strong sense of place, which is so important in the story (plus the quality and visual appeal of Barasch‘s ink-and-watercolor illustrations of rural Kenya add much interest and dimension to the story, bringing its people, animals and landscape alive). Starting off the story by introducing readers to what the great migration is and how it’s been happening the same way for thousands of years, was, after all, an effective way to pave the way for the boys’ story. Since the tribes’ deep-seated conflicts, as explained in the author’s note, are partly due to one semi-nomadic tribe’s cattle straying into the other tribe’s farmland, children will most likely associate the idea of different animals sharing the land peacefully (whether they do so knowingly or not) with the idea that humans can also learn to do the same.
Having come together to save the life of a small baby in danger of being attacked by warthogs, the boys were able to stop the old cycle of animosity to see beyond the prejudices that had been handed down to them by their respective tribes. The idea of children leading the way to peace, with small steps, is very powerful, and this book does a wonderful job of conveying it. The story reminds readers, young or old, that children are our future, everyone’s future, and shows that it is possible to overcome differences that get in the way of better judgement to co-exist in peace. We believe that that’s what kids, no matter where they live, will take away from First Come the Zebra.