cover image The Fire Children: 9

The Fire Children: 9

Eric Maddern. Dial Books, $14.5 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-8037-1477-9

Elegantly told, gorgeously illustrated and conveying a timely but unforced message, this rendering of a West African folktale is one of the more satisfying creation stories to come down the pike. The great sky-god Nyame fills a basket with soil, trees, flowers, insects and birds, then hangs it in the sky--thus forming the earth. Nyame cuts a trapdoor in the sky (the moon) so he can visit earth, and he punches holes (stars) so light can shine through. Then two ``spirit people'' dwelling inside Nyame climb up to his mouth to look outside; a sudden sneeze carries them to the earth. Once there, the spirit people, eager for children, fashion clay figures: ``We could bake the shapes in the fire and then breathe life into them.'' They bake some much longer than others, so that their children--all cherished equally--range in hue from ``cinnamon red'' to ``honey yellow'' and ``shell pink'' to plain white. Maddern's direct, evocative text and Lessac's vibrant, primitive paintings conjure forth a world of wonder, whimsy and genuine sweetness. Antelopes gambol while leopards sleep peacefully nearby; the spirit people radiate sheer delight in their unspoiled paradise. The brilliant green foliage, purple distant mountains and pure blue sky testify to the infant world's freshness, while the terra-cotta of the earth and hills generates an enveloping warmth. Ages 4-8. (June)