b>Jubela, Cristina Kessler addresses an unusually dark subject for a children's picture book. Her accomplishment is that she has made of this sad story a triumphant fable. Shortly after we meet the baby rhinoceros who is the book's protagonist, his mother is killed by poachers. Alone, terrified, the infant must find his way in the world without his mother's guidance. Naturally, because this is a children's book rather than a TV documentary, we know that this particular animal will triumph over adversity. He does,of course. But not effortlessly.
Surprisingly, Jubela is a true story. Although he is never named in the text, the baby rhinoceros is a real animal who was found orphaned in Swaziland. Jubela is a Siswati word for "a fighter." Park rangers at the Mkhaya Game Reserve named Jubela after observing his determined will to survive. Usually baby rhinos do not survive the deaths of their mothers. This baby spends a whole day and night beside his mother's body, making noises in her ear and nudging her horn. It is sunset of the next day before he smells the terrifying scent that presaged his mother's death the scent of human beings. In terror he flees his mother's body and finds himself alone on the savanna. The illustrations seem both lyrical and frightening. With dry pastels on paper, JoEllen McAllister Stammen nicely portrays the confusing world of a baby animal. Elephants loom huge, their heads impossibly high overhead, out of our field of vision, their enormous legs dangerously near. A herd of zebras race by in a blur. Eventually, the young rhino finds another female rhinoceros who, slowly, skeptically, adopts him. She is unable to nurse, but in time she teaches him to graze on the available grasses. "He slept, knowing tomorrow he would eat and drink again. And live."Jubela is not a protest book about poaching. It is a touching story of survival against all odds. However, no child will miss the point that the rhino's enemies are human beings. But so, later on, were his rescuers and so were the talented pair who created this memorial to Jubela's will to live.
Michael Sims writes about science and nature for adults and children.