Picture book highlight: Joshua’s Masai Mask

We’ve made our introductions, shared our vision. We’re psyched and in sync. We even got a little plug on Publisher’s Weekly. The stage is set, the lights are turned down, the music has begun. And now it’s time to dance.

Thing is, I’m not much of a dancer. I’m an artist. My email box is filled with art requests, not press releases from publishers with all the news you want to hear about authors and artists of color. I don’t have any news to share, so I’ll begin by highlighting books from my own bookshelf.

Joshua’s Masai Mask, a picture book written by (the late) Dakari Hru and illustrated by Anna Rich, was one of the first purchases of my collection, back in the early 90s. This book is old-school, but like good design, it’s timeless.

When Joshua tells his family about the school talent show, they urge him to enter and play his kalimba — also known as an African thumb piano. But Joshua was too embarrassed. The other kids would be doing cool things, like dancing the latest moves, rapping and scratching.

Uncle Zambezi urges Joshua to get into the spirit, and loans him a magical mask made of ostrich feathers, from the Masai tribe of Kenya. And that’s when things get interesting. Be careful what you wish for!

Josha wishes he were Kareem, the popular kid at school who can rap and dance like no one else. Don’t you remember feeling that way, too, when you were a kid? Suddenly, the mask grants Joshua’s wish, and he becomes his friend. Kareem’s family reminds me of some of my cousins, the one’s you don’t want to visit without a police escort.

When Kareem’s home life proved less than desirable, Joshua changed his wish to be a famous rapper — Righteous Rapper. But being a rapper has it’s downfalls, too.

In the end, Joshua reaps the benefits of just being himself.

I know some people don’t like books with underlying messages — preachy, they call them. But in a day where TV images are obscene, and radio and video games are even worse, I don’t mind a book that offers a positive underlying message. Heck, scream it!— that’s what the cartoon channel does.

Joshua wants to be a star, a hip-hop rap star. What kid doesn’t ,these days? (Though mine is only allowed to listen to Veggi Tales rap.) And I think that’s where this author really makes a connection with kids. While at the talent show rehearsal, the kids cheer and snap and boogie to rap music*, while spinning records and scratching. Have you noticed how many picture books are on the subject of jazz? Nothing wrong with it, but how many kids these days listen to jazz?

The author also made a connection with me. Uncle Zambezi, who owns an African art gallery, reminds me of my own uncle and aunt. They often dressed in brightly colored dashikis, and wore African clothing. Wouldn’t surprise me none at all if a Masai mask hung in their living room today. I think it’s important for African American children to be introduced to some of the culture of their African ancestors, I think it helps ground them.

I love Anna Riches art, I always have. She renders people very well, in a style I’d describe as playful, kid-friendly realism (If I can make up my own term). She successfully captures the emotions of the characters and portrays a multicultural cast.

An author’s note explains more about the Masai mask and it’s meaning to the Kenyan people.

*I know, yes, you gotta be careful with rap, too.

4 thoughts on “Picture book highlight: Joshua’s Masai Mask

  1. Don, what a great entry! I really want to read this book now to find out if Joshua won. This book sounds like it has a great message and wonderful artwork. Thanks for the literary recommendation.

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