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Aesop's Fables
Naidoo, Beverley; Piet Grobler (illus.) Aesop's Fables. London: Frances Lincoln, 2011. $18.95, ISBN 978-1-84780-007-7 ISBN-10: 1-84780-007-6.

Note: From the Publisher: A little mouse saves the life of a great lion; hungry Grasshopper, too lazy to store food, gets no mercy from the industrious ants; crafty Jackal tricks Klipspringer to escape death - but is himself tricked by the cock and the dog . Here are 16 of Aesop's wise, witty and timeless fables, portrayed for the first time in an African setting.

Aesop's Fables is a beautifully designed compilation of 16 tales retold by Beverley Naidoo. This version places the stories in African settings and argues that Aesop, in fact, may have been African, although no source is cited for this assertion (something I wish had been included). In the introduction, Naidoo posits that Aesop was probably captured somewhere in North Africa and forced to go to Greece and explains that his name sounds like the old Greek word for a black African: "Ethiop". Accompanying this forward, Piet Grobler's illustration depicts a brown-skinned Aesop bound and being led away on the back of a cheetah against an African landscape with a baobab tree and other typical African foliage toward a masted vessel waiting in a harbor. Naidoo also notes the inclusion of African animals in many of the fables and their conclusions with morals similar to the manner in which African folk tales demonstrate the meaning of proverbs.

Indeed, this whole volume carries out the overall theme that Aesop and his stories are rooted in Africa. The endpapers, page borders, and many of the designs on clothing and rugs draw upon African graphics. Other African trees depicted and mentioned in the stories include the tamboti, acacia, and banana. A traditional round dwelling with a cone-shaped roof, a water gourd, and clothing styles suggest various African motifs. As noted by Naidoo, many of Aesop's animals are native to Africa--for example, the rinkhals spitting cobra found in southern African--and her retellings substitute additional African animals for more European counterparts, such as jackals for foxes and warthogs for boars. Finally, some primarily South African words are inserted in the stories and explained with footnotes on the pages where they are used, such as the Afrikaans words brak, meaning a mongrel dog, Sjoe! as an exclamation of surprise, or laaitie, a South African slang term for child. Setswana and isiZulu--both languages which are spoken in southern Africa--terms also appear.

Finally, as Naidoo states from the outset, these stories don't always end happily, and their themes reflect that adversity: life is hard; some animals die; the clever (not necessarily the most deserving) survive, although some outsmart themselves; underdogs don't always win, but neither does brute force. There is a reality check quality, even irony, to these themes that may not conform to some more-European simplistic, idealistic notions of good and evil.

Although the stories themselves are not specific to an area of Africa and the illustrations depict diverse African ethnicities among the human characters, many settings shown are fairly uniform--dry, mostly brown savanna with rocky outcroppings--and don't portray the large assortment of landscapes across the African continent, from desert to lush forest. This limitation, along with the inclusion of terms from southern African languages noted above, makes the book feel more reflective of the author's and illustrator's South African roots than truly representative of the whole continent. That said, the beautifully executed watercolor and pencil illustrations in muted earthy colors show Grobler's distinctive style with elongated figures and add wry humor to complement the stories. His unique lettering mode for titles, with lines and dots appended to letters that are in-filled with designs, add to the unity of the work. This volume as a whole provides a most pleasing aesthetic experience for the reader. As noted in a 2011 Africa Access review of S Is for South Africa, Naidoo is a well-known, award-winning author of numerous other novels for youth audiences and more recently of picture books for younger readers. In addition, she has compiled a collection of African trickster tales, The Great Tug of War (2001). Grobler has illustrated many critically acclaimed picture books published in South Africa, some of which he also authored. Grobler, whose first language is Afrikaans, has taught illustration at two institutions of higher learning in South Africa. Both Naidoo and Grobler were born and raised in South Africa. Naidoo left in the 1960s when she was exiled for political activism against apartheid, and Grobler departed in 2009. Now, they each reside in the United Kingdom.

Aesop's Fables compares very favorably to another title reviewed in Africa Access, Gcina Mhlophe's collection of African Tales: One World, One Planet (2009), and to the 2002 anthology of Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales. All three compilations are noteworthy as culturally authentic retellings of traditional African stories. Highly recommended.

Published in Africa Access Review (March 22, 2012)

Copyright 2012 Africa Access

Rating: HR Grade: P Type: Book

Reviewed by: Barbara A. Lehman, The Ohio State University, Mansfield

Subject: Aesop's fables Adaptations / Fables / Africa / Anansi