Book Review – Mama’s Tales of Kanji: The Turtle’s Shell

Title: Mama’s Tales of Kanji: The Turtle’s Shell.
Author & Illustrator: Vincent Eke
Format: Paperback Picture Book
Published: 2013

Mama’s Tales of Kanji: The Turtle’s Shell is about a greedy turtle who doesn’t share his food during a famine with the other members of the animal kingdom, and when they find out about this they tie up his family, take all the food, and then chase him off a cliff.  Oh and some poor goat gets eaten for lying (actually telling the truth), because apparently the lion doesn’t have to share with the other meat eating animals but does have to rationalize.

Along with the normal Dr. Seuss and Thomas the Tank Engine, I’ve been reading my five-year-old nephew Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, often a full chapter in a single sitting. Keep that in mind when I say I think my nephew would be bored and bothered by The Turtle’s Shell.  I certainly was.

On the upside, I can’t criticize the spelling or grammar, but the wording was often clunky and redundant. Not in the charming way that children’s stories can repeat a line with rhythmic variation, but the staid way of repeating information unnecessarily.  The animals gathered for a meeting; the animals have the meeting; the animals go to do what they agreed upon in the meeting.  Five pages are dedicated not to the story itself but to the storyteller before and after the tale.  This sort of metafiction wrapping might work if it had been short and punchy, but it isn’t.  Instead it gives a lot of descriptive information that should be provided by the pictures in a picture book.

At first glance, the cover illustration has a nice balance of color, and the title pops. The golden tone of the story pages have an intriguing richness to them. But soon the illusion of good art begins to fade. The line work looks appropriate to a dollar store coloring book, and the coloring is a clunky mix of Photoshop gradient fills and inconsistent brush work. The tree looks nice and crisp, but the children’s faces are oddly waxy. The back cover is flat out awful, and things don’t improve inside where we get the same coloring book line work with no color.

If the book was designed to be a “color it yourself” interactive experience, the lack of interior color on the illustrations and coloring book style would make sense, but I could find no indication that this was the intention.

On to technical issues: This book is awkwardly large.  My nephew has plenty of other books the same size, but they tend to be hardback, which stay open more easily, and have more intricate illustrations. Even with the oversized font, there’s lots of wasted space. The empty bubbles that frame the title page so neatly continue through the whole book and seem to serve no purpose or connection to the story.

The font is a little too big for the reading level and far too small to use as an oversized book in a group read setting. It was not so bad for the first few pages, but midway through my eyes were getting tired.

The story is a bit too complex and violent for most preschool readers.  I would not try the current version with a child under eight and definitely not as a group read.  It could easily be trimmed down into a nice fable of greed and consequence, but only if the superfluous material was cut away. However if it’s intended for eight and up, it’s really too short and might be better off expanding to a proper chapter book.

The idea of introducing some African wisdom and fables to general audiences is good, but as a nerd, I’m annoyed that there’s no reference whatsoever to what portion of Africa this story is supposed to come from. Instead of some interesting culture notes at the end, we’re bombarded with an avalanche of links to help us follow the author online.  In particular, an explanation of the term “Kanji” would be nice, since it’s clearly not referring to the Chinese symbols commonly used in Japan.

One last note, there are a couple references to the “wisdom of the gods”, which may make some parents uncomfortable and seem out of place in a picture book that claims to be appropriate to all children. I have no problem with children’s books that deal with religious topics, but since this one doesn’t, the framing in these sort of religious terms seems out of place, adding to the too complex for preschoolers aspect mentioned earlier.

This one gets a 2/5 for good idea but poor execution.

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