25 Days – Book 10: What’s Cooking, Jamela?

For the tenth day in our Christmas book countdown, I bring you some South African Christmas celebration! It is a warm weather holiday filled with family, good food, a bit of chaos and an interesting friendship between a girl and her chicken. Let’s talk about What’s Cooking, Jamela? by Niki Daly, 2001.

This is the kind of book that I greatly love: one that introduces me to culture very different from my own, is an entertaining story with great illustrations, and also surprises me with a heart-warming tale with a bit of silliness. It is odd to read of a warm-weather Christmas, as my own are nearly always very cold and often snowy. A good portion of picture books present cold Yuletides as well, so Jamela’s tale is a welcome change to my literary fare.

It is the story of a young girl excitedly helping her mother prepare for the coming Christmas holiday and special meal with their family. Her mama allows her to help choose a young chicken to feed and mature for Christmas Day. On the way home, Jamela names the chicken Christmas and despite her mama’s subtle warnings, becomes very attached to the bird as she feeds and waters it each day. When the fateful Christmas Eve arrives, her wise mama attempts to send her on an errand, but Jamela fears the worst and sneaks Christmas along. The crowded streets and noise unnerve Jamela and poor Christmas chicken runs away. Jamela heads home torn between fear of punishment for her actions and delight that Christmas will not be in any pot the next day. The dear bird turns up at a most inopportune time and Jamela and her patient mama have a very humorous discussion about whether or not you can eat friends.

What's Cooking, Jamela? spread

Similar in plot to this year’s adorable book, Sophie’s Squash, I love Daly’s handling of this subject without toning it down much for young readers. The facts are that chickens are often raised for eating and it is quite a predicament to become overly attached to one’s dinner. The presentation of the story is unique for an American audience not just because of the South African setting, but also because we are often so far removed from our food before it shows up on our table that the chance to befriend it is pretty slim. I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch, but I do think a lot more familiarity with how food gets to our table would help us make better decisions regarding what we eat and how it is cared for prior to that.

I wish I could remember reading a book like this when I was little as I feel my perspective is skewed as an adult and I find myself less sympathizing and more just entertained. I marvel at the patience of the mama and her problem-solving in the end.

The author and illustrator, Niki Daly, actually lives in Cape Town, South Africa along with his fellow children’s book creator wife. He has created many well-loved picture books including one that I have yet to see which contains the same town and characters as this one, Jamela’s Dress. Daly’s characters have great movement and style and I also adore his color palette – presenting the earth tones of the area sprinkled with the pops of the South African township personalities. His is a loose style that tightens up for just the right moments. Every time I read through this Yuletide tale, I find myself catching and wondering over different details about the region and their traditions for celebration. This is a unique Christmas story that I wholeheartedly enjoy and smile through again and again.

Follow along our book adventure at 25 Days of Christmas in 2013.

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