“Penda lived in a tiny village in Africa with her mum and her aunties.” Thus begins Stephen Davies’ spunky Don’t Spill the Milk!, illustrated by Christopher Corr, set for release in a couple of weeks from Andersen Press.
The book, first published in Great Britain this year, is set during “rainy season,” and Penda’s father is stationed in the grasslands, taking care of the sheep. When Penda’s mum tells her one day that she’s heading there to take him a bowl of milk, she pleads for the opportunity to take it herself. Her mother agrees but asks her not to spill any milk on the way.
Penda milks a cow, fills the bowl, and her journey begins. Along the way, she mutters words of encouragement to herself—warm, chummy words of wisdom from “don’t wiggle, don’t wobble, don’t try to rush it, girl” to “keep it on your head, girl, milk don’t float” (as she takes a ride in a “stinky fishing boat” over the great River Niger)—with some “just walk on through”s, “eyes on the horizon”s, and “never give up”s thrown in for good measure.
And why does she have to talk herself out of distraction? Because the marvelous, wide world of her African village, though tiny, is on display, tempting her with its wonders on every spread—not to mention she’s devoted to her father and determined to complete her chore. There are the “uppy, downy dunes” (how I love that wording), caravans of camels, flocks of desert jinns, “a million dancing beasties” of the rainy-season mask dance, and more. My favorite line of text is on the spread showcasing “fifteen pale giraffes …stalking across the plains like fifteen aliens on a dusty moon.” The disciplined Penda then admonishes herself: “You’re not at the zoo, girl, you’ve got work to do.” Right after that, she faces a tall mountain and breathes in deep, steadying and readying herself for the final leg of her trip.
Evidently, this picture book marks a unique collaboration in that the author, who has lived in a small town in West Africa’s Burkina Faso for over 10 years and regularly visits Mali and Niger, wrote this book specifically with illustrator Christopher Corr in mind. “He is very good at portraying Africa’s varied landscapes,” he writes in a closing Author’s Note, “so I chose a region that would show off this variety to the utmost.”
And show off it does! You know you’re in for a treat when there’s a wordless spread between the dedication page and the copyright and title page that pans back to show the river, the people and the sights of this village. Corr’s palette is bright—sunny yellows, vivid rose colors, and unabashed blues and greens—and he fills every inch of his spreads with his highly-patterned gouache paintings, rendered in a flattened folk-art style, inviting readers into Penda’s journey. There’s nothing soft about it. It’s vibrant, radiant.
Penda succeeds in her task, but a large mango falls into the bowl as she hands it to her father, who is sitting under a tree. Milk spills everywhere, but no worries. Her father has some sweet, but hardly cloying, words about Penda’s efforts and her success in bringing the bowl as far as she did.
This tale is a great story-time, read-aloud choice. I want to snap my fingers and be a librarian again for a moment just so that I can pair it up with Kelly Cunnane’s For You Are a Kenyan Child (2006), illustrated by Ana Juan. Cunnane’s protagonist is much more easily distracted than resolute Penda, but both stories show parts of Africa not often shown in children’s books (as the starred Kirkus review for Davies’ book notes), while at the same time transcending culture and place. (Children all over the world are as curious as Penda and as Cunnane’s Kenyan boy.) Both books immerse readers in bustling worlds, and you may even be reluctant to leave.
Eyes on the horizon!
DON’T SPILL THE MILK! Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Davies. Illustration copyright © 2013 by Christopher Corr. Spread used with permission of Andersen Press USA, Minneapolis.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.