Picture Book Review: Jewels from Our Ancestors by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

Jewels from our ancestorsJewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Jamilla Okubo

From Goodreads: Jewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs is a short, illustrated literary collection of words of wisdom from the continent of Africa. The book honors the elders who have come before us and gifted us with sensible sayings that compel both readers and listeners to reflect, learn and grow.

I remember stumbling across The Night Has Ears when I was cleaning up our folk and fairy tales picture book section of the library. I was surprised to discover it was by one of my favorite children’s book authors Ashley Bryan and was quite taken with it both because of his art and the complex simplicity of the proverbs themselves. It seemed like such a grown-up thing to be sharing with children and yet when I shared it with some of my students they clearly grasped these ideas so well.

Dr. Tamara Pizzoli has given us another stunning collection of proverbs for children here with Jewels from Our Ancestors. This is, on the surface, a simple collection of proverbs paired with stunning paintings that depict the saying. Where Bryan’s illustrations are on the psychedelic side, Okubo’s are understated, but no less beautiful. People are shown in silhouette with lovely patterned fabrics. Blue predominates giving it an ethereal quality, but so too do earth tones give the sayings a feeling of groundedness. You can see the brush strokes in the paintings which give large expanses like walls and backgrounds a texture that breaks them up in an inviting way.

The simple proverbs collected by Pizzoli again feel so sophisticated and yet accessible for young audiences. Many share profound advice that all readers would do well to heed while others are light yet meaningful. And while children may or may not be readily able to use the advice they might gather from this collection, they can certainly mull it over for years to come.

The concepts here give the book such a broad range of ways it can be incorporated into the classroom or the home and I see so many uses and applications for the book. For classrooms that study African cultures, you can share these. Of course this should be a piece in a broader study of African cultures and be wary of slipping into fetishizing or exoticising African wisdom and African cultures. Older students might want to research, if they can, the origins of the proverbs and how they relate to the cultures they originated in.

Jewels would also make a great addition to language arts studies of idioms, proverbs, and sayings. Many cultures have proverbs and sayings that impart wisdom in succinct and condensed nuggets. Compare them across cultures and examine their use of sparse, but impactful language. How is that these important pieces of knowledge can be distilled down into such short statements?

In my own home we have a set of cards with affirmations on them that relate to social ideas, emotional regulation, and building self esteem. We tend to read one at the breakfast or dinner table and discuss how it relates to our day or how we feel about it. I could see incorporating these proverbs into dinnertime discussion. Talk about what they mean, how they relate to your day or week, or how you might incorporate them into your daily life. Do any of them speak directly to you or what is going on in your life? I know a number of these did for me and it’s something I would like to share with my daughter. Grown-ups, remember to share your own ideas with children! This isn’t about grilling them about their New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a conversation about how we can all benefit and grow from these pieces of wisdom.

With such beautiful illustrations you could also use the book as a model for collage art. Cutting silhouetted people, using patterned papers to illustrate student’s stories and painted backgrounds and details make this a good model for mixed media art. Let kids experiment with various materials and see if they can illustrate their favorite proverb from the collection.

This would make an excellent addition to any school or home library that wants to diversify it’s collection. And with all the ways you can use it will be worth the purchase price. Please support small independent artists, authors, and presses. The English Schoolhouse in particular puts out gorgeous books at reasonable prices that will make your library collection well rounded and beautiful.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by the author to use in a giveaway on Instagram.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.