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Laura James – Review of the Day: Anna Carries Water by Olive Senior

I was recently engaged in a high-energy search at my library to locate as swiftly and surely as possible a listing of any and all children’s books set in the Caribbean. We were eventually able to locate 21 picture books in my system, but when you consider how many picture books are published in a given year it was hardly an overwhelming number of titles. This happened about a month ago, so maybe that was what first drew my attention to the book Anna Carries Water. Or maybe it was the starred review in Kirkus that was the first draw. Or maybe it was the book itself when I saw it firsthand and actually gave it a read. Beautifully illustrated, printed, and written, author Olive Senior and illustrator Laura James together have tapped into a story instantly understandable to a child from any culture in this wide world in which we live. Sibling jealousy, the desire to be more grown-up than you are, and a good old-fashioned ridiculous fear combine to make this one of the more charming books I’ve seen this year.

Poor Anna. The youngest of six siblings she always joins her brothers and sisters after school to walk to the spring for water for their Jamaican home. And every day her older brothers and sisters get their water and place it on their heads, never once having to hold their buckets or cans or empty cheese tins to keep them in place. As for Anna, all she has is a dinky coffee can, and even THAT ends up soaking her clothes when she tries to emulate her siblings’ style. Though she asks her eldest sibling Doris when she’ll be old enough to carry water hands free like the rest of them, all Doris can tell her is that “It just happens . . . so don’t worry.” Little does Anna realize that her phobia of cows, never an asset before, will offer the key to her little problem.

There is a certain kind of well-meaning picture book that seeks to inform first, and tell a story second. These are books with the best of all possible intentions. You can recognize them instantly. They’re often rather lovely, but eminently purposeful. Books like Chandra’s Magic Light about Solar Tuki lamps in Nepal or Beatrice’s Goat about the Heifer Project International in Uganda. When I saw that Anna Carries Water was to be about a girl carrying water on her head (or at least wanting to) I just mentally filed it away as a book that would ultimately be about well drilling in one country or another. And there is nothing wrong with that kind of book, I just want to say. But what I like about Anna Carries Water and what sets it apart from those other books is that the characters in this story aren’t going out of their way to introduce you to their world. These are kids who are going about their lives and the problem at the heart of the book is therefore instantly relatable. What kid isn’t going to instantly understand what it would be like to be the youngest child in a family and the one person who can’t do something (but almost can) that her older siblings accomplish with ease? Anna’s desire is palpable and understandable. You could talk to me all day about “this is how we do things in Jamaica” but it is a LOT more interesting if you show, don’t tell. Just skip all the hoo-hah, plunge us in, and give us a universal story that is easy to relate to. Brava!

I’d not encountered artist Laura James before, but there was something about her thick set paints that immediately drew my attention. At first I had a hard time pinning down what it was that appealed to me so. Certainly the colors are nice. Each page is painted on canvas and is a vibrant collage of green, brown, red, yellow, you name it. The setting was also this lovely lush and green location, challenging those assumptions some adult readers of the book might have about areas of the world where people have to walk long distances to water. Ditto the modern appliances and recognizable contemporary clothing. Then I realized it was the people I gravitated to the most. James has a tendency to create kids and adults that you like upon contact. It’s something about the size of the eyes or the way their weight falls on one hip or another when they stand. After a while I also realized that James makes people with eyes that look a lot like those of fellow illustrator Meghan McCarthy (and she’s one of my favorites out there). Mystery solved.

On top of that, Ms. James works in these natural little details that never appear in the text but give the whole enterprise a ring of authenticity. In one of the early spreads Anna is watching her siblings as they lounge and work in front of their house. One of her brothers (Rohan, I believe) chomps down on a stick of sugarcane. Robbie, meanwhile, is sitting talking to Trevor, a small band-aid evident on one of his knees. There’s something so amazingly realistic about these slight, small details. It isn’t enough that James understands this country or its people. She understands how important it is to include realistic unspoken details in a picture book. Would that other illustrators did the same!

And yes, it has a couple problems here and there. I had a devil of a time understanding how Anna could be staring frightened at an impossibly long-tongued cow in one picture and then have the time (or wherewithal for that matter) to put her little cup of water on her head as she ran home in fear in another. It would have made a bit more sense of Anna had been trying to balance the water on her head yet again when the cow made its presence known. Another friend of mine read the book and liked it fine but wasn’t taken with the way in which Ms. James illustrates teeth. That didn’t bother me in the slightest, for the record. I like the teeth here. They actually remind me of when I was a kid and the ways in which I drew teeth on the people in my own drawings.

We (and by “we” I mean “people who work with children’s books in some capacity”) talk a lot these days about the need for more multicultural literature for kids on our bookstore and library shelves. The trick, it seems to me, is to look beyond the big six American publishers that make a hat tip to a different worldview every once in a while, but generally produce the same old, same old. Tradewind Books, a Canadian publisher, is the perfect example of a little publisher willing to try something fresh and new and good. Anna Carries Water stands on its own two feet and just happens to be better than 75% of the pablum I sift through on a daily basis. Funny and well told, great for storytimes (you can see these images a mile away) with a message I’m rather partial to, consider this a little gem that could easily get lost in the hubbub of your average publishing year. Worth discovering. Worth holding onto.

On shelves now.