A Telling Tale

With Grandmother's Alligator, local author Wendy Wakefield Ferrin explores the sources and value of stories.

Hapo zamani za kale mahali ambapo

hapakuwa na sehemu wala wakati...

That's the opening line of Bukenge Wa Nyanya, a new children's book by Knoxville author and educator Wendy Wakefield Ferrin. Which is interesting, because that line is in Swahili—a language Ferrin can neither speak, read nor write.

If you flip the book over, things get a little clearer. The title now registers in plain English as Grandmother's Alligator...A Tail in Two Sittings, and the opening page reads, "Once upon a place, where there's no space or time..."

The self-published book, the second from Ferrin and her husband Richard's Wakefield Connection company, has attracted no little attention in recent weeks as the writer has taken it to national book fairs. Besides being handsomely illustrated by Knoxvillian Beverly Ashley Broyles and professionally bound and produced, not to mention its allusive and intricate rhyming narrative by Ferrin, it is one of the first children's books anywhere written in both English and Swahili. At the American Library Association's annual expo in San Francisco a few weeks ago, Ferrin happened on a consortium of 54 African publishers from 17 nations.

"They were fascinated that I as an American had chosen to write this in Swahili and English," she says. Arrangements for African distribution are pending.

In fact, the story of the birth of Grandmother's Alligator is as much a testament to the transportive powers of imagination as is the book itself. The Ferrins were on a driving tour of America a few years back, promoting a health-education project called SOPE. Wendy, a consultant for gifted and talented programs in schools, and Richard, the recently retired former director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, had the idea of placing posters in interstate rest areas and other public bathrooms encouraging people to wash their hands. (It was also the focus of Wendy's first book, Germs on Their Fingers, which was also illustrated by Broyles and translated into Spanish. You can find more information at www.sope.net.)

While in Santa Fe to meet with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, Wendy Ferrin went wandering and ended up in a store full of art and artifacts from around the world.

"I came in and I saw this bench," she says. "It was a 10- or 12-foot piece of wood carved in the shape of an alligator. And suddenly, I got this picture of children sitting on a bench, with a grandmother telling stories to them. It came in instantly, and it became something I had to deal with."

So much so that she returned to her lodgings with the image fixed in her head. "I went back to the hotel and sat down at the laptop and I wrote it in 11 minutes," she says with a laugh. This wasn't just a rough draft—it's nearly the exact text that appears in the book. "I think I changed one word," she says. "It came to me intact."

It is, of course, the kind of moment most writers pursue and long for—the instant of inspiration that can be neither forced nor purchased and that rarely makes rational sense in retrospect. More remarkable, that inspiration is precisely the object and subject of Ferrin's tale. Her short, 31-line story-poem is about a Grandmother "who loved to talk in rhyme." The children who come to visit her sit on her enormous alligator bench as she spins tales out of the air. Through stories, she teaches them history and culture and, most important, the power of their imagination: "She told each one, 'Go in your head, your stories are in your bones.'"

It concludes, "Those children slept and grew and loved and all their lives were richer, because Grandmother dared to teach to trust in their mind's picture."

Broyles' rich, colorful watercolor paintings give the book a suitably timeless and mythic tone. Broyles says the recurrent purple scarf that runs through the pictures "is a metaphor of weaving together stories and telling and developing a continuum from page to page... It kind of ties them all together as one." The tale's universality is reinforced by the illustrations' effortless multi-culturalism—the children are a range of races, and Grandmother herself is an indeterminately dusky yellow—and by African symbols and dress.

"[The story] lent itself so easily to the theme of storytelling, of history, of legacy and cultural heritage," Broyles says.

But that wasn't enough for Ferrin. Keeping in mind the African origins of the bench (which she has since purchased), Ferrin was intent on publishing the book in two languages. She chose Swahili because it's the best-known of the continent's countless tongues and dialects. She didn't have to look far for help: translator Simmon Mwangi is a Kenyan graduate student at the University of Tennessee and a writer and poet himself. (Among the complications was the fact that there is no African word for "alligator," for the simple reason that there are no alligators there. The point is raised in the story itself, by a boy who opines that the bench is probably a crocodile.) The first time Mwangi read his translation aloud, Ferrin was rapt.

"I thought the words were beautiful," she says. "I thought the words were more beautiful with the illustrations than the English words were. It's a beautiful language to listen to. It does the illustrations justice."

She hopes the book finds a home in schools and libraries, here and abroad. A major independent distributor has agreed to carry it, even though the company doesn't usually traffic with such small operations as the Wakefield Connection. In the meantime, Ferrin is finishing up her third book, The Girl Who Didn't Mind, a fictionalized account of her daughter's experiences as a gifted student who didn't fit into the public school system. In deference to her daughter's love of Scotland and her Scots-Irish heritage, it will be published in English and Gaelic.

The subject matter is fitting—Ferrin says it was her experience as a mother that first taught her the value of using stories to explain the world.

"To me, the art of storytelling is a wonderful way to raise human beings," she says. "And it's a wonderful way to be human beings."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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