Book Review: The Great Race – ‘Who ever heard of a snail racing a deer?’

The Great Race: An Indonesian Trickster Tale retold by Nathan Kumar Scott, art by Jagdish Chitara, Tara Books, 2011

As a child, I often spent holidays in India visiting my grandparents; one of the great pleasures of every trip was to go shopping for books. On each visit I discovered a whole new world of books, fiction and nonfiction, published in India. As a parent, I have found joy in this all over again. One of my favorite Indian publishers for children, Tara Books, has a style and vision that is consistently inspiring.

The Great Race, written by Nathan Kumar Scott and illustrated by Jagdish Chitara, retells an Indonesian story that will be familiar to many children because of its similarity to “The Hare and the Tortoise.” Kanchil, the boastful mouse deer, roams the forest, smug in the knowledge that he is faster than any other creature. He decides to make it official, and challenges the other animals to a great race. The only creature brave enough to accept is Pelan, a tiny snail. Kanchil mocks, but the race goes ahead. Of course, Pelan wins—not once but twice. The final page contains a delightful twist in the tale (I won’t give it away…) The book is beautifully written, the simple rhythms of a folk tale enlivened by vibrant dialogue and sly humour.

Jagdish Chitara’s illustrations are perhaps the most wonderful feature of all. They are starkly rendered in black, white, and red, block printed and dyed. The animals of the forest leap off the page. It an example of the cross-cultural collaboration that Tara Books does so well: this is an Indonesian story illustrated in the traditional Mata Ni Pachedi style of textile painting from the Indian state of Gujarat. A note at the end of the book describes the tradition. Jagdish Chitara comes from a family of artists, and learned the craft from his father. For the first time here, he turned his skill—usually used for religious rituals and performance—to illustrating a children’s story.

Last year, my son’s kindergarten class had parents come in as surprise “mystery readers” with a book of their choice. This was the story I read. The children were compelled by the bold illustrations in such a distinctive style. The highlight of the experience was watching their reactions at the final twist in the story—eyes gleaming with delight, whispers going around as those who “got it” first explained the trick to their friends.

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