Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Three Wise Men


By Ekemini Pius

  • Title: The Elders at the Door
  • Author: Maryanne Bester
  • Illustrator: Shayle Bester
  • Publisher: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
  • Number of pages: 79
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Children

Maryanne Bester’s The Elders at the Door is a story about a family living in a village. One day, while they are preparing to have breakfast, they hear a knock on the door. The mother peers out of the window to find three Elders standing at the door. She opens the door and invites them to come in and eat with her family, but they refuse to come in all at once and ask her to choose one of them to enter the house. The mother goes back to ask her family who they think should come in among the three Elders, namely Wisdom, Blessing, and Love.

The eldest child wants Blessing to come in because he feels that all their father’s business needs to bloom is blessing. His sister rejects his idea and insists that the reason their father’s business is not growing is because he lacks wisdom, so she chooses Wisdom. But the baby of the family, who can mutter only a few indistinct words, keeps saying, ‘Love, Love, Love’. Surprised by her insistence, the family does not debate the matter further. They invite Love into their home to have breakfast with them. When the mother goes back to the door to tell the Elders that her family has chosen Love, the Elders say they will all come in because she has chosen Love, for where there is Love, there will also be Blessing and Wisdom.

This is a didactic children’s story on the importance of love and how embracing it can bring other virtues. Bester uses animals as characters to fascinate her readers, mostly children, and draw them into the story. The prose is simple, as it should be, and the pictures are bright and bold enough to make the story interesting and real to the reader.

It is all too easy to underrate Bester – and indeed all writers of children’s fiction – because they come off as people who do a very simple job, to wit, writing for a demography that is easy to please, and doing so without having to exert any artistic skill. This mentality could not be more wrong. The writers we should cherish most are those who write stories for children, because children are the future writers and reviewers and critics, and how well they develop depends on how well their creative minds are nurtured.

Writers of children’s books are not afforded the time and space to gradually build a plot as is allowed with adult novels. They have to immediately impress the children they write for by beginning their stories with catchy characters and narratives, and this, to the mind of this reader, requires an astute artistic skill. This is something Maryanne Bester has mastered; she skillfully uses animal characters to hold the attention of her readers.

The Elders at the Door is a symbol of what all children’s stories should teach: moral lessons. Beside parental upbringing, children are shaped by what they observe, watch, and read. Writers of children’s literature like Bester have a unique opportunity to convey moral virtues to the tender hearts of children. Bester, in this short book, chooses to teach love and accommodation. This story is a lesson for children to always love and cater for people, especially those in dire need of help.

It is also important to note that this is a very African story. Although none of the characters have African names, the use of the three Elders as characters says a lot about Africa, as it is a prevalent culture in Africa to refer to older people as elders. This story, through the three Elders, portrays the renowned African culture of holding the aged members of our societies in the highest esteem, showering them with care and attention, listening to and learning from their words of wisdom because ‘what an Elder sees sitting, a child can never see it even if that child climbs the tallest Iroko tree’.

The illustrations by Shayle Bester, who is the author’s sister, are as powerful as Maryanne’s prose, for she sends powerful messages with them. For instance, in Shayle’s illustrations, there is a cock crowing, and this is a representation of the typical African morning. Also, there are huts which represent the living conditions of many rural dwellers in Africa. There is equally a kerosene lantern to accentuate the rural nature of the lives of the characters. There are clay pots and food being cooked over firewood. A door made from corrugated iron sheets is as well quite remarkable. All these illustrations prove that this is a very African story, and, together with the text, set Maryanne and Shayle Bester apart as one of the finest writers and illustrators, respectively, of children’s fiction on the continent.

Photograph: ‘Old door’ by paultom2104

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Ekemini Pius
Ekemini Pius
Ekemini Pius is a student of English and Literature at the University of Calabar, Nigeria. He loves fiction and has published short stories on Afroztar. He is also a recipient of the Calabar Carnival Creative Writing Award and has been shortlisted for the Linda Ayade Creative Writing Prize. He was a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.

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