The journeys of an African king
The subject of the beautifully written and illustrated Mansa Musa is a few years in the life of Kankan Musa, one of the greatest kings, or mansas, of 14th century Mali the African kingdom that used to be "four months' travel long and four months' wide," and that, according to legend, sent explorers to the New World years before Columbus. At first glance, the story of Mansa Musa is a typical journey-of-the-hero tale, complete with wanderings in a strange land (in this case the Sahara desert), the search for a lost father and a Virgil/Obi-Wan Kenobi-type mentor in the form of a mysterious nomad named Tariq. But Burns overlays this archetypal story with his knowledge of time and place, including differences in architecture, clothing, religion and language. Burns' words are brought wonderfully to life by Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon's richly colored illustrations, whose shallow perspectives and dreamy skies recall the paintings of Fra Angelico. The paragraphs of the text are separated by strips of patterns that resemble motifs found in Akan kente cloth, and the smooth pages have the look of parchment.
Many of the book's characters, including Tariq, are presented as tall, poker-backed and intimidatingly dignified. For desert-dwelling people, that dignity is more than a social embellishment it's necessary for life, as Tariq indicates when he chides Kankan, the future mansa: "I bought your freedom with gold . . . I offered you a camel but you chose to walk like a slave. Already, you think like a slave . . . You claim to be a man, but have not yet mastered the beast within you." Burns' writing is as graceful as the book's illustrations, easy for school-age children to understand without being torturous for grown-ups. The reader eagerly follows Kankan Musa throughout his travels till he finally returns to his homeland, veiled and unrecognized at first, to find his younger brother king of Mali. What happens next is interesting, unexpected and definitely gratifying.