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The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela
Kessler, Cristina; Leonard Jenkins (illus.) The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela. New York: Holiday House, 2006. $16.95, ISBN 0823418588 .

Note: In the Ethiopian mountain village of Lalibela, famous for its churches and honey, a young girl determines to find a way to be a beekeeper despite being told that is something only men can do.



Review

The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela, recommended for grades 1-3, is a timeless tale of young girl's determination to follow her dream. The heroine, Almaz, is determined to be the best beekeeper in her village, even though she is told it's "men's work" and she should learn to do women's work. Almaz is drawn to make honey after a trip to the market where she gets a taste from a honey seller and tells herself that "one day mine will be the best." Inspired she pays a visit to the honey makers who practice their trade at the edge of the forest and tells them "I want to make the best honey in all of Lalibela." The men find her declaration laughable and are quick to be dismissive of her determined announcement. The eldest of the group condescendingly tells her that beekeeping is "men's work" and to "go find your mother and learn to cook, clean and gather firewood." This crushes the little girl's spirit but she finds friendship and encouragement in the form of a gentle priest called Father Haile Kirros. With his encouragement she learns the art of beekeeping and in time she's at the market outselling her male competitors. But Almaz isn't in the clear yet as she comes across difficulties with her technique. Once again she turns to Father Haile Kirros and with his guidance she overcomes her difficulties and is once again back at the market and the men who at first tried to discourage her welcome her back as "the best beekeeper in Lalibela."

The simplicity and universality of the tale makes the book appealing to young children of all backgrounds. Although the characters are portrayed within a rich cultural milieu, they are not overly exotic or foreign. Almaz, has universal traits and qualities allowing young readers to connect to her and relate to her aspirations. And even though the story deals with the sensitive issue of cultural gender roles - "men's work vs. women's work" - Kessler's sensitive handling of the topic rescues it from seeming preachy and excessively critical. She steers clear of delivering judgment on the situation. Instead Almaz is provided encouraging support from key figures such as the priest and her family. This is a more accurate depiction of how such issues work themselves out locally.

The author has skillfully infused Ethiopian culture, tradition and vernacular to make it "[a] tale from Africa." Commonly used and easy to pronounce terms are peppered through the book allowing readers a flavor of the local language. Kessler has included a glossary to aid readers as well as a note on the Legend of Lalibela. She recounts the story of King Lalibela for whom the modern day city is named. This addition helps to contextualize the story and ground the reader in Lalibela. The illustrations are a strong feature. Rich, fitting, and intensely colorful, they provide an eye-catching and true rendering Almaz and the inhabitants of Lalibela. Overall, The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela is attractive and charming tale that can be employed either as a learning tool in a classroom setting or as leisure reading.

Copyright 2007 Africa Access All right reserved.


Rating: HR Grade: P Type: Book

Reviewed by: Azeb Tadesse, UCLA

Subject: East Africa / Ethiopia / Lalibela / Fiction