A Country Far Away by Nigel Gray and Phillippe Dupasquier.
Orchard Books, New York, 1988.
Picture book informative fiction, 26 pages.
Lexile: BR (What does BR mean in Lexile levels?)
AR level: 1.2 (worth 0.5 points)
This book has an intriguing premise. There are two stories – on the top of each page, outlined in red, is what my copy calls life in “a small African village” and on the bottom of each page, outlined in blue, is what my copy calls life in “a modern suburban setting.” The two stories are very, very different, but they are united by the central text, which in simple words states what is happening in the lives of both boys, for example “Today was the last day of school before vacation.” or “I helped my mom and dad.” In my copy, the text is only in English, although some other reviews have indicated that other editions might have had other text as well at one point, and there is white space where such text could occur.
Normally I don’t seek out reviews for books I’m planning to review, but this book was an exception. I needed to see what others were saying in order to make sense of my own reaction to the book, and I was confused that the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. There were very few negative reviews even though the book has several crippling flaws.
For example, this book chooses to portray a young black boy from a small and rural village somewhere in Africa next to a young blonde white boy in an undefined city in the developed world. The white boy lives in a predominately white and comparatively quite wealthy world (some kids in his class are of color, but his family and friends are all white, as are all the kids at the swimming pool, families in stores, and adults in any authority position (nurse, teacher, etc.).
This book buys in to the cultural assumption that the black person will be in a poor situation, limited by circumstances, while the white person will be in a position of influence and wealth. I felt that had the city dweller been a black boy, or had rural life in Africa been juxtaposed with rural life in America (or a similar developed nation), this book would have been much better.
One could argue that the intention was not to be racist. I’m sure the authors of this book, as those of many others, did not set out to be racist and probably were not aware of these flaws in their book. However, as can be seen on page 22, where the white children play cowboys and Indians (one wearing a feathered headdress and the other having a gun), this attitude is prevalent even outside of the major race issue. This is the importance of #ownvoices. This book was written and illustrated by privileged white males. Simply having people of color involved in making this book could have caused a critical look at the choices made.
For those families that are sensitive to portrayals of religion, I will also mention that on page 6, the African children draw Noah’s Ark on the blackboard in school. This was realistic to me as many African schools were set up or are run by Christian missionaries. However it may bother or cause questions for some families.
The end of the book highlights the major economic difference between the two main characters. The white boy finds a book about Africa at the library. The black boy is on a rare trip to the market and while his father is speaking with the vendor, he sneaks a peek inside a book about America. He does not own the book and is unlikely to be able to read it (while the white boy can check the book out from the library and read it at his leisure). The very scene that so many reviewers found incredibly touching was for me one of the most despairing in the book!
In this digital age, many people are buying their books online. Based only on the reviews I read, I would certainly have considered buying this book if I hadn’t already checked it out from the library. Writing reviews about my favorite books is fun, and what a wonderful world it would be if every book we read was thoughtful and high quality. But reviews that are mediocre, mixed, or even negative are important too.
Based on the myriad concerns outlined above, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book. At the end, I felt like this book was made with good intentions, and by a capable author and illustrator. In the 1980s it was probably a valuable teaching tool. There may be very specialized cases in which it might still be of use, but for libraries, teachers, and families, please choose another title.