by Sam Juliano
The vital importance of water in everyday life is given center stage in a sublime new picture book authored by Olive Senior and illustrated by Brooklynite Laura James. Senior, born and raised on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, moved to Europe and then to Canada after the capital city of Kingston was ravaged by a hurricane in the late 80’s. Senior is renowned for her poetry and adult novels and short stories, but was supremely flattered when publishers chose Anna Carries Water and the 2012 Birthday Suit as worthy of the picture book treatment. Senior credits Laura James and Eugenie Fernandez -the illustrator of the earlier book- for transforming her material into such exquisite works, but the veteran writer is certainly to be credited for half the acclaim for her wholly exhilarating ideas.
Anna Carries Water focuses on the young girl of the title, who wants to follow in the footsteps of her older siblings in sharing the task of carrying water on her head from a well at a spring located across “Mr. Johnson’s” field. Ms. Senior’s narrative stresses the central role of water for cooking and drinking, washing faces, dishes and dirty feet. Senior states that the family members did not carry water for bathing or washing clothes as those activities were performed in the river. This particular variation on the coming-of-age theme is the acquired aptitude for learning how to balance a container of water on one’s head, which translates to a sure sign of responsibility and the skills associated with adulthood. Early in the fable Anna carries around a coffee can while her five older siblings used large metal cans, plastic buckets and an empty cheese tin to gather the water. Unwilling to concede defeat she must endure the trials of tribulations associated with such a simple yet profound act that will ultimately define her transformation from child to young adult. In one such attempt she tears off a piece of a dasheen leaf, and floats it on the top of the can of water she puts on her head, but it falls off, necessitating that she carry it in front of her.
As is the case with many stories of a person finally attaining their most desperately sought after goal, Anna’s initiation into adulthood is rather accidental. Terrified by the peaceful cows that graze in Mr. Johnson’s field, and the realization that she is alone, she frantically places a can of water on her head and dashes off to meet the family who were looking for her. Miraculously she didn’t spill a drop, while simultaneously it registers that the cows were never any kind of a threat to her in any manner. Anna Carries Water examines sibling rivalry, the power of determination and conquering fear while attaining a long-elusive objective.
Ms. James, herself of Antiguan heritage, employs eye-popping and colorful acrylic paintings with shimmering tropical textures that enhance the beautiful Jamaican countryside being showcased. The book is comprised of a series of stunning full page spreads that would tell the story without Ms. Senior’s still lovely and poetic prose and which boast a three-dimensionality and ethnicity that properly conveys to young readers that the story takes place in a different part of the world. My personal favorite collage tapestries include the various cascades of water coming down to fill all the containers, with young Anna and her coffee can at the forefront; the picture of mom preparing a dish in the kitchen with a mosquito and red layer cake and casseroles in the oven; Anna lagging behind the line of her brothers and sisters near “Christie’s”; the overjoyed family looking on as Anna arrives with the can on her head; the cover photo reprized in the book with Anna smiling with can on head and birds and butterflies flying around her head and the final exhilarating capture of Anna doing a cartwheel in jubilation.
Though the book’s unique setting and daily chores shed a new light on what is most urgent in daily existence, there is a universality in how one advances to the next level in their domestic maturation that rings through this charming story. All people have challenges and the need to develop the skills that will enable them to assimilate and gain the confidence to overcome insecurities and the feeling that they are not skilled enough. We’ve seen this kind of theme in American books like The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and more benignly in A Chair For My Mother by Vera Williams when a young girl faithfully saves coins over a long period to buy a chair that means so much to an impoverished family living in an urban zone. When nearly all readers could never relate to the difficult chore of carrying water -unless they experienced camping outdoors- they could certainly relate to the matter of working to attain a watershed.
It might seem a stretch to believe that Anna was spooked by grazing long-tongued cows, but that is another part of her age and immaturity. It is also a story device to further illustrate her increased understanding and blossoming wisdom. In any case Anna Carries Water is a sterling example of how multi-cultural literature can appeal to all, and how the craft of a great artist can elevate a worthy narrative into a picture book masterpiece that will appeal equally to adults and art lovers everywhere.
Note: This is the first in a series of picture books that will deal with new releases, classics and works from other countries. ‘Anna Carries Water”, published in 2013 is Canadian, and as such was ineligible for Caldecott consideration, but is richly deserving of any ten best list of that year.