By Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen; Illustrated by Aaron Boyd
Lee & Low Books, 2003, 2008; ages 5-8
Topics: Africa, creativity, grandparents, education, mentoring, poverty, wisdom
Bernardi is a young boy living in Tanzania with his grandfather Babu. It’s just the two of them and they scrape by selling the toys Babu makes at the local market. Their poverty prevents Bernardi from attending school–there is no money for school fees. He looks longingly after the other boys. No money either for the soccer ball Bernardi covets in the shop window.
Babu is unable to speak—“an illness had taken his voice a long time ago.” However, the author and illustrator collaborate beautifully in this award winning picture book. They show us the special relationship between Bernardi and Babu and their ability to communicate. But Bernardi hums a tune Babu used to sing to him, one that he still misses.
The grandfather, Babu, uses amazing creativity in transforming tins and scraps of other materials into toys for selling to tourists. He also makes a music box from a tin of lard that plays the song he once sang to his grandson. Bernardi is thrilled and takes it along to enjoy at the market.
Bernardi initially refuses a tourist’s offer to buy the music box, however his dreams of owning a brand new soccer ball lead him to take her money. But Bernardi regrets his decision and heads home in tears without the soccer ball.
When young Bernardi confesses and gives the money to Babu we really see the strength of their close, loving relationship and the wisdom of the grandfather. There is no scolding, just comfort and understanding. Then Babu leaves with a smile and returns with a package—a school uniform for Bernardi. He has paid the school fees. But that’s not all—
“With a flourish Babu held out a soccer ball made from string and Mama Valentina’s gunnysack…Babu pulled one more surprise from the paper bag. It was an empty lard tin. As Babu began to make another music box, Bernardi put the water on the stove to boil. Then Bernardi hummed Babu’s song as they sat in the lamplight and waited for their tea.”
In Babu’s Song the grandfather is an older man not only perfectly capable of caring for his young grandson, but he is a true role model—passing on traits like ingenuity and perseverance despite his inability to speak. There are too few picture books that portray an older character exhibiting both competence and creativity like Babu. Even fewer books are in print where an elder with a disability shows such traits and is not in need of the child’s care.
Babu is able to demonstrate his values around education and hard work and help Bernardi learn from his mistakes without judging or shaming him. This is exactly how the “age-old practice of mentoring” is described in the book From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older.
Authors Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller define it as–
“the art of intergenerational bestowal by which elders pass on to younger people the living flame of their wisdom.”
“Mentors do not imposed doctrines and values…Rather, they evoke the individuality of their apprentices, applauding them as they struggle to clarify their values and discover their authentic life paths.”
Of course not all older adults are wise, but Lee & Low, the publisher of Babu’s Song, seems to recognize the many gifts of intergenerational relationships. Lee & Low is not only a trailblazer in publishing diverse titles, but recently featured Diversity 102: Ageism in Children’s Literature on their highly regarded blog.
They have long published titles like this that spotlight interesting older adults from around the world. Lee & Low is the largest multi-cultural publisher for kids and they celebrate their 25th Anniversary this year.
From Lee & Low—“Book activity: Ask students to write a letter to their grandparent or grandparent-figure in their life. Review the structure and tone of a friendly letter. Students should describe what they admire about this person and include questions to learn more about them.”
Henri’s Scissors—about artist Henri Matisse. Read this picture book and Babu’s Song with kids and discuss how both thrive creatively as they cope with illness and disability in later life. What do they admire about these characters?
Read and talk about different types of families. Sometimes It’s Grandmas and Grandpas: Not Mommies and Daddies, is a picture book showing grandparents raising grandchildren. (According to the organization Generations United, “…nearly 1 million children are living in homes where the grandparent is the householder and neither parent is present in the home…”)
It’s Perfect Picture Book Friday at Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog—find more great books here.
Many thanks to Lee & Low for the review copy (most donated to Detroit Public Schools). Copyrighted images used with permission.