Title: Tort And The Townies
Author: Sayo Juba
Publisher: SCLK UK
Reviewer: Oyeyinka Fabowale
Novel, comic, didactic. These perhaps sum up the qualities of Tort and The Townies, a newly published children’s storybook written by Sayo Juba. But they hardly capture enough of the creative genius of the young writer in elevating an old African fable to the pedestal of an entrancing modern tale, with global cultural appeal and relevance!
The book centres on Tortoise, the famous hero of African folklores and how he takes advantage of his friends in the animal kingdom, with his notorious, cunning, greedy, treachery wiles and shenanigans, but eventually paid for it.
This story is specifically based on the Yoruba classic whereby tortoise betrayed dog that took him to steal grains and foodstuffs from a farm in order to beat starvation, due to famine ravaging the animal kingdom. Tortoise had pressured dog to take him along on the larcenous mission after observing that the famine barely affected the latter’s family, as they always looked well-fed and radiant in contrast to other animals’ famished appearances. However, the operation was ill fated, as tortoise was caught due to his greed and insistence on filling and taking more sacks of the loot than he could conveniently carry. This hampered his movement while his accomplice escaped.
He also dishonourably breached the oath of secrecy he took with his partner-in-crime not to implicate the other if caught. But just this once, tortoise was outwitted and beaten to his own game, as dog feigned sickness which left him off the hook, when the law came to arrest and punish him.
From this simple story, the author weaves a superlatively entertaining and morally evocative narrative that children, not only in Africa but also all over the world, can relate with. This, she achieves by adapting the story to the contemporary world in which the characters, settings, events and issues were slightly but innovatively altered to reflect the present scenario that today’s generation can relate with.
Tort and The Townies is a satire that depicts human foibles and proclivities such as greed, conceit, pride, deceit, foolish arrogance, corruption, immorality and a tendency to impose on others. Although, the characters are animals, one may as well be reading about humans in their goodness and depravity, their virtues and vices, both in relationships and family setting.
Aside the major theme, the book is also replete with sub-themes and lessons notable among which is that “pride goes before a fall”, exemplified by Gawt’s (Goat) disappointing failure to finish the keg of beer he had boasted he could, but ended up vomiting and spraying those around with, thus ruining the jolly mood at the pub where they had gathered ostensibly for a drinking contest!
The narrative is spiced with lively and entertaining laugh lines such as when Dawg (Dog), responding to his curious wife, Trick’s query on the subject of his conspiratorial discussion with Tort, lied: “Oh, darling we were just discussing how spicy women are to life! You know you make our lives complete” thus drawing the bitch into a meaningless bout of contrived laughter.
Another instance was Tort sounding offended at Dawg’s plea to him to keep an embarrassing secret of his to himself. The shelly one has indignantly pretended that the affair was none of his business, but went ahead to hint darkly that, with the raging famine, “Sometimes, even I have to go hungry, so that Yanny and the kids will eat…”
Written in simple, lucid and breezy prose with very expressive and graphic illustrations, Tort and The Townies is easily read and digested in a matter of an hour or two. Juba enwraps the didactic message and laces the dialogue with lively expressions and popular slangs that have become of universal use, especially in the pop culture.
Although narrated from a third person singular point of view, the author broke the rule early in the book, taking poetic license to have Tort introduce himself, his buddies and community to the reader. But rather than detract from its value, this seemingly rude intrusion lends literary flavour and dramatic flourish to the narrative, as it enables the reader to situate the characters as they relate to the central figure and follow the story as it develops. It’s no doubt a novel and effective presentational style in communication that is fast gaining ground in the media and other art forms now, and to which the young ones are able to connect.
Also remarkable is the author’s exceptional creativity in coining names for the characters from their generic identities or the African cultural roots. The animals are addressed by ‘funky’ sounding names, which rhyme with the animal species they represent or the indigenous ones they bear. This not only makes them sound appealing but also easy to retain by the young readers who are the target audience.
Children of reading age are certain to benefit from this book, with its rich moral, educative and entertainment values. Adults will also find it an exciting recreation of the probably long forgotten oral literature of their childhood, even if some would quarrel with the liberty it took with the purity and credibility of the accounts.
However, the author and editors might want to note for possible corrections in later editions perceived albeit negligible textual and graphic flaws, in order to make it an award-winning book it potentially is. One of these, for instance, is the disagreement between the text that reports Gawt as drinking from a keg of liquor and the illustration that shows him drinking from a barrel instead.
Apart from these, the book is a good textual material for adaptation into a TV cartoon series or movie of the like of ‘Lion King’. It is another testament to Sayo Juba’s literary talent and skills as a writer coming into her own especially in the juvenile literature category.