A young tortoise faces big, life-or-death questions in this children’s novel.
Feno lives in a place called Tutiland, which was once an ecologically rich savanna with “luxuriant grasses,” “overflowing rivers,” and anthills teeming with “lush plants and giant mushrooms,” but it’s since been “baked dry.” Feno’s name means “Fear Nothing,” but he and his father, Negu, and his mother, Iagu, face drought and brutal dictatorship in their beloved homeland. The once-peaceful community of grassland creatures has become divided in the face of scarce resources. In one camp, animals struggle to balance their own survival with their resistance to Koli, the tyrannical elephant king who hoards what remains of water resources. In the other, are “brown-nosers”—including literal dung beetles—who kiss up to Koli in order to stay above water, so to speak. In the thick of Tutiland’s crisis, and with a child’s stubborn altruism, little Feno commits to staying in his homeland and healing the community, but his moral stance is put to the test. Various members of his family and community pressure him toward violent retaliation, flight, or surrender, and later, he weathers a horrific loss and a near-death experience. This fable’s environmentalist message is timely and important, and Nyamidie (Ready for Your Love and Other Poems, 2004) offers an accessible assertion to children to believe that their voices matter in the community. Monahan’s (A Loud Whisper, 2017, etc.) illustrations drive home the effects of drought and dictatorship. However, some other aspects of the book detract from its overall impact. The dialogue is choppy and confusing at times, for example, and the plot feels rushed overall. Characters also morally transform and reconcile with others in ways that feel abrupt and unrealistic. The watercolor illustrations, though lovely and skillful on the cover, lose some of their luster in black-and-white reproductions in the interior.
A politically charged fable with an important message despite awkward execution.