Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Mama for Owen

It would appear that picture book authors (and publishing houses) can't get enough of the story of Owen and Mzee, a baby hippo and a very old tortoise who are real-life friends.

First, there was the picture book Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff and Paula Kahumbu, which featured actual photos of the two animals, along with an excellent description of their story.

Then came the improbably long-titled Mama: A True Story, in which a Baby Hippo Loses his Mama During a Tsunami, but Finds a New Home, and a New Mama, written and illustrated by Jeannette Winter. Inside the book, the only words are "Mama" and "Baby," so I guess she wanted to be sure the actual plot was written somewhere, in case the pictures left any doubt.

Now, in 2007, we have A Mama for Owen by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by John Butler:

You may ask yourself (as I did when I spotted the book at the local bookstore): "Does the world really need a third picture book about Owen and Mzee?"

The answer is a resounding YES. In fact, I'd be willing to argue that if any of the books is on the fence, it should be the one in the middle.

In this version, Marion Dane Bauer tells the story of how Owen was swept downriver and away from his mother during a tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, and later washed ashore. Her explanation is less detailed (and probably slightly less accurate) than in Owen and Mzee, which remains my favorite of the books, but her text plausibly relates why and how Owen might have decided to befriend Mzee, and includes some of the facts of their existence -- how they seem to enjoy one another's company, and how they've developed a "language" all their own, with both of them making a common noise that's native to neither species.

The illustrations in A Mama for Owen are wonderful, in my opinion. Something about them reminds me a little of a Golden Book I had when I was very small named Baby Farm Animals, by Garth Williams, that I adored because the animals were the cutest versions of themselves, and made you want to snuggle them. This book does that for hippos and tortoises. Don't believe me? Take a gander at these images from inside the book, ganked off the Simon & Schuster website:

First, a bit of the text from the page: "Owen loved the river. But even more he loved his great greyish brown -- or was she brownish grey? -- mama."

Or another page:

Owen's favorite game is still hide-and-seek.

Mzee slips beneath the water,and Owen plunges in to find him. Mzee nestles in the long grass, and Owen peers through the grass until he spots him.

Mzee rests behind a rock, and Owen searches and searches until...

There is Mzee!

School Library Journal found this version of the story "too endearing," preferring the photographic books Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship and its sequel, Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship. And truly, if I had to pick only one book (okay, two, with the sequel), I'd stick with the Hatkoff and Kahumbu book(s). But A Mama for Owen is an excellent choice on the merits if you can have more than one book on the topic, and is probably a slightly better choice, text-wise, for very young readers.


Camille said...

I love Garth Williams. I know what you mean about the illustrations invoking him.

I like the photographic version too but I bet if they had known they would be using them in a chldren's book they would have been higher resolution.

Maybe I am just used to HD now and being too picky.

robert swayze said...

Yeah..I read about that tortoise and baby hippo friendship story in Newyork Times! Its lovely...good post and keep posting few more of such divine frienship stories :)

jimbo said...

Read more about Owen & Mzee at their blog:

Join the Owen & Mzee Yahoo Group at:

See Owen & Mzee Movie trailer:

Author's fabulous website with movie: