Book Review #1: Qayb Libaax (The Lion’s Share)
Author: Said Salah Ahmed
Illustrator: Kelly Dupre
Publisher: Minnesota Humanities Commision
Qayb Libaax (The Lion’s Share) is a storybook rendition of a popular folktale in Somali culture. The book is one of four, published as a part of the Somali Bilingual Book Project of the Minnesota Humanities Commission. Launched in 2006, through a joint effort by the Minnesota Humanities Commission and the local Somali community, the initiative sought to produce resources which promoted and sustained heritage languages and improve English literacy skills among refugee and immigrant families. Along with the book series, dual-language audio and video recordings were also produced for each of the books.
Set in Somalia, the story goes that the beasts of prey were on the hunt for food when they found and killed a camel. As the animals begin dividing the camel meat among themselves, the lion protests, declaring that they cannot eat without his permission. One by one the animals present their proposal to the lion for distribution of the camel meat, with the lion disagreeing at every turn and demanding the greatest share. Ultimately, the story ends with the lion being provided with the greatest share.
As with most parables and folktales, in this story lies the lesson, that sometimes life is not fair. The tale can also be used as a catalyst for discussing the perils of greed and the importance of fairness. For generations, folktales were used by Somali adults to inculcate children with values and morals central to Somali and Islamic culture.
Given the dearth of multicultural literature in children’s literature, and more so in the subfield of Somali children’s literature, this book is a welcome contribution. Given the increasing importance of valuing children’s home cultures and languages, this wonderful book not only connects children with their heritage but also promotes the development of intergenerational literacy. Not only is the book culturally responsive and sustaining for Somali children and families, it is also written in English and Somali. With the use of Somali, not only can parents connect with this well-known folktale, but can also read to their children using the Somali text.
Images play an important role in the engagement of families with this text, particularly for families who may have low literacy skills in English and Somali. Kelly Dupre’s illustrations are beautiful; not only do the images capture the animals and setting central to the folktale, they also do a great job of punctuating the emotions of the story’s protagonists. The exaggeration of emotions is key to Somali storytelling, and it’s fascinating how Dupre is able to render this exaggeration through illustration. The, at times, abstract illustrations may be challenging for some, particularly for newcomer families who may not have had previous exposure to illustrations used in children’s books.
The inclusion of the Somali text is the standout feature of this book. Words like ‘bahalaha’ (beasts) are sure to make Somali readers, child or adult, chuckle. Rendering an oral folktale into written form undoubtedly was not a simple task, but author Said Salah Ahmed deserves applause particularly, because folktales tend to be relayed in classical Somali, a higher-level of Somali analogous to Old English. One of the drawbacks of the text is that the written Somali does not appear to be adapted for young children, but relies on the use of classical Somali, a form of Somali typically reserved for folktales, poetry and proverbs. As a result young Somali heritage language learners may have challenges reading the text, not to mention their parents who are more familiar with standard written Somali. A key consideration for authors, who seek to produce dual language Somali-English children’s texts, will be to use Somali that is accessible for young children as well as their parents.
Overall, this is an incredible addition to existing dual language children’s literature for Somali children. In an era where parents are concerned about promoting Somali cultural understandings in their children, dual language books not only connect children with heritage culture, but also heritage literacies.