by Sam Juliano
Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles were born blind yet went on to become justly celebrated writers and singers. (Charles was actually seven when he lost his eyesight). Wilma Rudolph, born premature and sickly, developed polio almost immediately, necessitating leg braces, yet won three gold medals at the Olympics. Perhaps the most famous “disabled” person was Helen Keller, who was born deaf and dumb, yet mastered braille to become a major author, lecturer and political activist. Their triumphs were made possible by a dogged refusal to surrender to their limitations, and subsequently to achieve the level of success not attained by some of their peers who never had disabilities. Yet they all benefited by societies that encouraged getting beyond their limitations, societies that offered money and support groups. Hence it is unconscionable to perceive that in some places in the world it is seen as a curse on a family who give birth to a compromised child. In Ghana in West Africa a boy named Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in largely perfect order, save for one of his legs, which was limp. The crushed father left the family never to return, but the mother was driven by her faith and named her child Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”
Emanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson, with the electrifying art by Sean Qualls is a real life story about the indomitablity of the human spirit. “Mama Comfort” was loving but firm, and told the boy he was welcome to have anything as long as he secured it through his own physical means. First off he learned how to walk and hop, and to carry water on his head and climb coconut trees. Eventually he earned money shining shoes. The boy’s mom realized that few kids with disabilities attended school, but she personally carried him the two miles until he became too heavy. But that point there was no way he would stop attending, so he hopped to and fro on one leg. As expected he was given the cold shoulder in the beginning, as no kids wanted to become friends with a disabled person. This changed after Emmanuele bought a soccer ball, which he shared with the other kids. Wearing crutches he kicked the ball with his left foot, all the while lunging and spinning. It never comes easy but such determination did earn him their respect. Shortly thereafter by trial and tribulation he learned to ride a bike. After his mother became very ill when he was 13, Emmanuele boarded a midnight train to a city one hundred and fifty miles away. Little did he know that he would not be seeing his family for two years. Optimistic, Emmanuel mixes in with many people, but none will give him a job. Some shop owners coldly tell him to beg like other disabled people, but he refused. Luck finally shined for him and a food stand owner gave him a job serving drinks and shining shoes as well as a room to live in.
In the book’s most moving spread, Emmanuel is shown with his hands clasped, and eyes closed during the holiday season, when he returns home to his critically failing mom who imparts to him the advice of a lifetime before expiring on Christmas Day. His mother urges him to always show respect, to take care of his family and never beg. Her words of inspiration allow him to forever understand that being disabled does not mean being unable. Emmanuel devised a plan to bicycle around his country, but initially was rejected. Nobody would help him. Things turn in his favor when his letter to the “Challenged Athletes Foundation” in San Diego, California resulted in a bike, helmet, shorts, socks and gloves, all sent on to him. His marathon plan after obtaining a blessing from the King of his region goes into full gear as Thompson elaborates:
He went door to door asking for additional support. Finally, he hired a taxi to follow him with drinking water, a camera, and his best friends. Then Emmanuel tied his right leg to the bike’s frame, jammed his left foot into a flip-flop attached to the pedal, and rode.
Emmanuele then pedaled through the city, rain forests, rolling hills and muddy rivers, having to precariously deal with wild animals and passing trucks on narrow roads. He passed through grasslands and an ancient city, in short he rode all through Ghana in every direction wearing the colors of his flag, and a shirt displaying the words The Pozo, meaning disabled person. As his trip continued he met many more people, included some who were disabled. He was becoming a national hero, and completed nearly four hundred miles in only ten days. His accomplishments drew respect in his country and worldwide and enacted reforms in Ghana, where Emmanuel continues to work for the disabled. But he acknowledges that are a long way from the finish line.
The mix media/ink and watercolor collages by Qualls are bold, vivid, imbued with energy and color, and are people friendly. Green and orange are dominant. Many of the characters are shown in the forefront, patterned and all on their own missions through life. Though the artists opts for a minimalist palette, the results are rich and visceral, full bodied and culturally attuned. His tapestries are just wonderfully diverse, his style for this book is that of an abstract documentary filmmaker who just tries to move along without ostentation. Qualls is a master of distance and perspective, and he uses the sketchy non essentials as outlines in the scenes that are too somehow watching the drama and action they are framing. You could hardly ask for a more resonant visual tour than Qualls who brings flavor, vitality and an emotional ferocity to this work. His depiction of Emmanuel praying outside his mother’s hut, kicking the ball while with crutches, his arrival at the steaming marketplace, riding through Accra and the finale of him in vivid color on his bike (a replication of the cover, save for the shirt) are tapestries not easily forgotten. Patterns and shapes are top heavy in his art, and as such visually immersive.
Thompson and Qualls have pooled their extraordinary talents to tell a story that matters, one that continues. The Caldecott committee will soon be deliberating and Qualls’ inimitable art should be under serious discussion. A Sibert would be real nice, but this exhilarating work deserves more. Emmanuele’s Dream by definition and experience is a life-affirming book that will elevate and inspire all who turn its pages.
Note: This is the thirty-fifth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.