Picture Book Review: Paseka: A Little Elephant Brave by Ruth James

Paseka: A Little Elephant Brave written by Ruth James, illustrated by Kent Laforme

The book opens with Paseka (pronounced Pa-see-kah), a baby elephant , staggering around a grassland looking for her mother. She is being attacked by a pack of hyenas who bite her and frighten her. Something large and rumbling approaches and Paseka mistakes it for her mother and follows it. Luckily, it also frightens off the hyenas.

It turns out to be a jeep that is heading back to a campsite where Paseka tramples an old shed down and is tranquilized. A group of men put her into the back of the jeep and take her to a rehabilitation camp. Upon waking Paseka finds a herd of elephants where she thinks she spots her mother. The matriarch of the herd checks her out and accepts her into the group and she begins to find a place where she will be cared for. The herd eventually takes Paseka to a place where there are elephant bones and we discover her mother has been poached. Paseka comes to terms with the death of her mother and hears her mother encourage her to be brave.

The publisher contacted me about writing a review of Paseka and gave me access to a digital copy. Before I got a copy I did some research and found it was written by a white woman who has lived in Tanzania. I hoped the book would steer clear of a white savior narrative, exoticizing Tanzania and its people, and looking at it from an outsiders perspective. I think for the most part it does and Paseka does a couple things that are useful. The first is, and this was pointed out in the publicity for the book, it gives children from Tanzania, and Eastern Africa more broadly, a picture book featuring local folks, local wildlife, and local habitats. The author works with a nonprofit that provides books to children in Tanzania and Kenya (as well as other services). In terms of distributing books to children in other parts of the world, picture books written with American, Canadian and European children in mind don’t have the same cultural relevance to children elsewhere. It’s important for them to see themselves and their homelands reflected in the literature they read and Paseka does that. It also has a Kiswahili translation of the text in the back. I worry a lot about the white savior aspects of the non profit, but the book itself doesn’t feature any white folks. It’s all Tanzanian people caring for Paseka and reuniting her with other elephants. I cannot speak to how it fits with local beliefs and sensibilities either, but I hope the author knew enough to at least try to make a relevant book. I do wish publishers sought out African authors and illustrators and gave them the opportunity to write books about their lives and their countries. That’s the ideal, the gold standard.

The other thing the book does is open conversations around wildlife conservation, the importance of local people being involved in those operations, and allows educators and parents to take a hard look at who is doing the poaching and why. I’m thinking of that dentist a few years back that killed the famous lion, but also capitalism and its expansion and the expectations it breeds around access to things like ivory, etc. And also exploitation of places impoverished by colonialism. These are important conversations for us to have with our children and students.

The text is definitely on the long side and it starts out scary with a hyena attack on the baby elephant. Proceed with caution with younger audiences. That being said, I think the ending actually delves beautifully into the majesty of elephants, their intelligence and intuition. Paseka is taken to tree where bones of poached elephants lay. There she finds a skull that brings to mind a heartsong that “she had heard…every day before she came into the great wide world.” So while sad and heart wrenching at first, it ends with warmth and love.

The illustrations are soft, sparse watercolors and I love that all the elephants look different. I’m a hippie at heart who had a home birth so the illustration of Paseka in wrapped in warm-toned swirls and hearts with an umbilical cord and her mother floating on the opposite page looking on lovingly and floating in what appears to be the universe really hit me in the feels.

I definitely think if you have books like Owen and Mzee and they’re popular and/or they fit with your curriculum this is a book worth having. It will also appeal to those environmental/animal activists in your library and classrooms. But use it open up hard discussions about places like Tanzania and why they need organizations to come in and provide children with books and why they have economic needs that facilitate poaching. Also use it to talk about the beauty and resilience of these countries and their people. Talk about how they want to preserve their land and their fauna and how they help themselves do that. Don’t let this book live in isolation in your collection or classroom.