cover image The Magic Tree: A Folktale from Nigeria

The Magic Tree: A Folktale from Nigeria

T. Obinkaram Echewa. HarperCollins, $16 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-688-16231-3

Echewa's (The Ancestor Tree) lilting retelling describes how an orphan gains power over the villagers who treat him badly. Each day, from sunup to sundown, the people call out to Mbi, ""Mbi, do this! Mbi, do that!"" Yet the boy frequently ends up hungry, having no food other than the scraps he can lick from others' bowls. One day, a udara fruit falls magically from its tree--out of season--and when Mbi plants its seeds, like Jack with his Beanstalk, he gets more than he bargained for. Not only does a tree take root immediately, but it obeys Mbi's commands. The tree gives him all the fruit he can eat, which he generously shares with the villagers. But when a boy tries to steal the fruit, Mbi sings to his tree, commanding it to grow (""Udaram to-o-oh!"") until its branches are ""lost in the clouds."" Only after the villagers shower Mbi with gifts and promise to be kind to him does he command the tree to bring the boy down. The drumlike beat of the words gives the narrative the sound of a tale that has been passed down orally for generations, replete with songs and pauses that anticipate audience reaction. Yet the book's moral may confuse readers; the tale seems to indicate that kindness is dependent upon power. Lewis (The Jazz of Our Street) fills his sun-drenched watercolors with realistic details of clothing in vibrant colors and exquisite baskets set in intimate village scenes, and grounds the story's magical elements in the real world. Close-up portraits of Mbi's transformation from village outcast to mascot help to compensate for the obfuscation of the story's message. Ages 4-up. (June)