It was the cover of this book that made me pick it up, something about that vast sunset vista promises a poetic and thoughtful book, don’t you think? Carmen Agra Deedy’s 14 Cows for America is both of those things. It is memorable and beautiful and certainly it is a story that will engage kids in important discussions about compassion, cultural understanding and the power of storytelling.
This is the story of a young Maasai man named Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah who was studying in the United States at the time of the September 11th attacks. He was in New York City on that day and he witnessed the devastation first hand. He returned to Kenya the next spring and told his community about what he had seen. He decided that he would make a symbolic offering to grieving Americans: his cow that he had bought after years of saving. Cows are sacred to the Maasai. They represent life. They are treated with kindness and reverence. Naiyomah’s gesture inspired other members of his community to give up their own precious cows. 14 cows were given in a ceremony, as a show of support and connection from the Maasai to the American people. Today the 14 cows have calved and the herd has grown to more than 35 cows. They remain in Kenya as a symbol of hope and peace.
I think that this is a book that could very easily have come off as didactic or overdone. It isn’t. In fact there is no direct mention of the September 11th attacks in the text. Finally, at the end in the last picture, you see an image of the burning twin towers in the eyes of a young Maasai child. It doesn’t come out overtly until the notes on the last two pages of the book in which Kimeli Naiyomah gives more background on the story. I think that this makes the text even more powerful, since it allows the surprising relationship between the Maasai and the American people to be the focus of the book. Thomas Gonzalez’s illustrations are gorgeous. They are luminous and each one stretches over two pages, suggesting the wide open landscape of the country. All that sky helps to create the feeling of hope and possibility that comes through very strongly as you read the text. There is nothing showy about this book, but it is instead quietly profound, and certainly begs to be read in classrooms all over the world as part of any unit of study on peace-building and global citizenship.
14 Cows for America is published by Peachtree.