Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale

One of the library books I recently checked out contains a tale I’ve read before, although when choosing it from the library’s online catalog, I had just a vague recollection of its details. I am now happy to be reacquainted with Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale,  and to know more about the tale’s author and illustrator, John Steptoe.

SYNOPSIS:

Mufaro was a happy man. Everyone agreed that his two daughters were very beautiful. Nyasha was kind and considerate as well as beautiful, but everyone—except Mufaro—knew that Manyara was selfish, bad-tempered, and spoiled.

When the king decided to take a wife and invited “The Most Worthy and Beautiful Daughters in the Land” to appear before him, Mufaro declared proudly that only the king could choose between Nyasha and Manyara. Manyara, of course, didn’t agree, and set our to make certain that she would be chosen.

John Steptoe has created a memorable modern fable of pride going before a fall, in keeping with the moral of the folktale that was his inspiration. He has illustrated it with stunning paintings that glow with the beauty, warmth, and internal vision of the land and people of his ancestors.

To speak generally for a moment: aren’t the physical elements of children’s books [like this] just delightful? The commanding [9½” x 11″] size; the smooth, sweeping pages; the combination of story and imagery; it just really feels like you could get swallowed up by the book—in the best way possible.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters immerses its readers into a tale about good and evil, kindness and selfishness. This dichotomy is presented in a repetitive narrative; both Nyasha and Manyara follow a [literal] path towards their future, but where Nyasha reacts to distractions or possible conflict with goodwill and decency, Manyara plows through on her way to riches and glory, not caring who she pushes aside to get there. When it is revealed that the tests presented to the sisters along the way were manifestations of the King, it’s not surprising who becomes Queen.

I am equally as charmed by this tale as I am about rereading a book I encountered as a child/pre-teen, and I remember how younger me absorbed the illustrations in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. This is one of those illustrated books in which the imagery makes it easy to recollect the important details and themes of the story, and brings an instant sense of familiarity to a returning reader. Unsurprising, John Steptoe’s illustrations have garnered many awards and much critical acclaim.

John Steptoe’s first story and artwork appeared in Life Magazine in 1969, when he was just 18 years old. Titled Stevie, it is still in print today, and you can even listen to/watch a reading done on Sesame Street back when it was first published (I highly recommend doing so here).

The significance of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters within John Steptoe’s complete book list, is explained on the John Steptoe Estate’s website:

While all of Mr. Steptoe’s work deals with aspects of the African American experience, MUFARO’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS was acknowledged by reviewers and critics as a breakthrough. Based on an African tale recorded in the 19th century, it required Mr. Steptoe for the first time to research African history and culture, awakening his pride in his African ancestry. Mr. Steptoe hoped that his books would lead children, especially African American children, to feel pride in their origins and in who they are. “I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people,” he said, accepting the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Illustration, “I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from.”

The following is the dedication page that precedes the story of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, and I have typed out the text in the caption below.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters was inspired by a folktale collection by G. M. Theal and published in 1895 in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region. The names of the characters are from the Shona language: Mufaro (moo-FAR-oh) means “happy man”; Nyasha (nee-AH-sha) means “mercy”; Manyara (mahn-YAR-ah) means “ashamed”; and Nyoka (nee-YO-kah) means “snake.” The author wishes to thank Niamani Mutima and Ona Kwanele, of the Afro-American Institute, and Jill Penfold, of the Zimbabwe Mission, for their helpful assistance in the research for this book. THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO THE CHILDREN OF SOUTH AFRICA.

So whether you are expanding your folktale reading, looking to add a beautifully illustrated story to your shelves, or just need to add one more book to your general TBR, consider Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.

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