by Carmen Agra Deedy
in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah
illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez
Peachtree Publishers, 2009
review copy provided by the publisher
Blog Tour Schedule here.
14 Cows for America website here. (still under construction)
Carmen Agra Deedy's website here.
Thomas Gonzalez's website here. (still under construction)
14 Cows for America tells a powerful story of ubuntu, or empathy for other humans. In this story, a young man who witnesses an attack on strangers gives his most valuable possession to help them heal.
The story is amazing, but it is the pictures that draw me back into the book over and over again: the sky, the light, the variety of points of view, the realism, the color, and the cinematic flow.
I had the good fortune to be able to talk to the illustrator, Thomas Gonzalez, about his vision for the story.
Amazingly, this is Tom's debut in children's book illustration. However, the path of his life seems to have led him directly here. When he was a child in Cuba and then in the United States, drawing was like a second or third language for Tom, and his ability to bring the world to life on paper amazed his childhood friends.
Tom graduated from The Atlanta College of Art and has worked for 20 years in advertising and design and as an art director. But when he reconnected with his one of his childhood friends who had also come with her family from Cuba to the U.S., Carmen Agra Deedy, and when he saw the manuscript for 14 Cows for America, he knew instantly that he wanted to illustrate this book. It took some convincing, but luckily Peachtree took a chance on him.
Tom brings to this book his admiration for Maxfield Parrish's realism and for the precise techniques of Japanese airbrush illustrators. He brings his strong sense of design -- for the scale and placement of objects -- and lots of background research. He began each spread with a pencil sketch of stick figures and sky. He then used pastels to block out the pictures, paying close attention to shading and to the light sources to give a sense of realism (here's the Parrish influence). Next he used acrylics and he tightened his lines with brushes and pencils to enhance the details. Finally, he used airbrush to retouch the pictures in spots.
Symbolism in the Illustrations
My favorite part of the book, in terms of the illustrations, is when the American diplomat comes to Kimeli's village. On the left side of the first two-page spread, we see the diplomat's Land Rover in almost complete darkness driving towards the village. The sky looks like there is an approaching or retreating storm, or else it is the last light of dusk or the first light of dawn. On the right side, there is light breaking through the clouds and illuminating the village. The text reads, in part, "As the jeep nears the edge of the village the man sits up. Clearly, this is no ordinary diplomatic visit. This is..." Then you turn the page and --BAM!-- you are suddenly in the midst of color, dance, and movement -- the exuberant village welcoming the visitor, not for a diplomatic visit, but for..."a ceremony."
When I talked to Tom about what these pages said to me, about the American people, represented by the diplomat, in their time of darkness, and the Maasai people lit by their desire to respond to suffering and injustice with their kindness, he was pleased that I found meaning that was not his intention.
And then he asked me to go back and look for the symbolism that he did intend. In almost every illustration, Tom has included a twin tower image -- it may be a pair of figures, or spears, or giraffes, or uprights from the cows' pen, or the two shafts of light beaming down on the village, but almost every picture in the book bears the reminder of the act of violence that prompted the ubuntu, the selfless act of caring and sympathy of the Maasai people to the American people. As we talked about how this story affected him personally, Tom said that for him this story is about far more than just 9/11. This story says that no matter how powerful you are, unexpected circumstances can come out of nowhere and totally change everything...and that help often comes from people you don't know. For Tom, this book is about the connectedness of all people.
Children's literature is lucky that Thomas Gonzalez found this new path in his career. He has several more children's books in the works. Keep an eye on his website for news about these upcoming projects.