In 14 Cows for America, out this month from Peachtree, Carmen Agra Deedy, in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, tells the true tale of Kenyan villagers who reached out to the people of the United States after the horrific events of 9/11. Illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez, the book explains that Naiyomah, then a graduate student at Stanford, was in New York City on the day of the terrorist attacks. On a visit to his homeland months later, he relayed the story of the tragedy to his fellow Maasai. In response, tribe members donated 14 cows, revered in Maasai culture, which they asked the tribe elders to bless before symbolically offering the animals to Americans to help them heal.
Deedy initially learned of the Maasai gift from an article in the New York Times, which included striking color photos. “The Maasai wear many hues and patterns of red when they don traditional robes, and the colors fairly vibrated on the print,” the author explains. “I was immediately drawn to a shot of Maasai women holding up a hand-made sign that read, roughly, ‘We send these cows to help you, September 11 tragedy.’ ”
Though she was captivated by the account and conducted a significant amount of research about the Maasai, for years Deedy wasn’t sure how to present the story in a picture book. She eventually wrote a first draft, yet the meaning of the story still eluded her. “If I was still so unclear about what the story meant, then how would young readers wrap their heads around it?” she recalls wondering. Then, on a school visit, she read her draft to fourth graders and one helped her find the story’s focus. “This girl raised her hand and said, ‘It’s like that Aesop’s fable about the mouse and the lion. You know, big needs little.’ This told me what I guess I had known all along. ”
Peachtree’s president and publisher Margaret Quinlin, Deedy’s longtime editor, knew the author had been working on this story but hadn’t yet seen a draft when Deedy read the manuscript to her over the phone. “It was beautiful from the start,” she recalls. “Carmen had purposefully wanted the story to be spare and it had a reverential tone because of the nature of the story. I knew immediately I wanted to publish the book.”
How Gonzalez came to illustrate 14 Cows for America provides a satisfying back story to the book’s creation. Both he and Deedy were born in Cuba and grew up in a small Cuban refugee community in Decatur, Georgia, where their fathers were close friends. Though author and artist had not been in touch for nearly 40 years, their parents ran into each other at a funeral, says Deedy, “at the precise time when the search for an illustrator for 14 Cows was getting heated. Our mothers encouraged us to meet.” Though she initially showed the artist another manuscript, he was interested instead in illustrating 14 Cows for America.
Deedy’s next step was to track down Naiyomah, since, she explains, “We weren’t comfortable moving into the editorial process without his approval. Naturally I was anxious that he should like the manuscript, and hoped he hadn’t committed to another project.” After Deedy learned that he did indeed approve of the manuscript, she asked him to act as a “cultural consultant” on the book and to write an afterword.
Naiyomah happily agreed to both. “When Carmen and Peachtree asked for my blessings and help in making this story real and authentic, this I joyfully did,” he says, “with respect and honor for my people and for the lives lost on that tragic 9/11 morning in America.”
Naiyomah’s afterword, observes Quinlin, reinforces one of the key themes of 14 Cows: “Central to Maasai culture is the belief that if you want to heal someone else’s pain, you have to give them something close to your heart, which is what the Maasai did here,” she says. “Kids whom I’ve read the book to seem to be very drawn to that idea.”
And what does Deedy hope youngsters will take from 14 Cows for America? “A sense of wonder, perhaps, of the great goodness that remains in what often seems a cruel and senseless world,” she says. “If we can believe in that goodness, when our time comes, we may be able to repeat it.”
14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, illus. by Thomas Gonzalez. Peachtree, $17.95 ISBN 978-1-56145-490-7