Along the Tapajós
“Along the Tapajós is an exciting book with an intriguing lifestyle story, filled with stunning, vibrant and unique illustrations.”
Children’s picture book artwork does not get much better than what Fernando Vilela has created with his intimate view of river life in the Amazon Rainforest. Along the Tapajós takes readers out of their surroundings and transports them to another world where kids do normal kid things but in an uncommon and unusual setting.
Vilela’s mixed woodblock and collage artwork is so captivating that before the story even begins it will warm the spirit and charm the heart. The opening artwork is a scene of seven smartly colored and boisterous birds hanging out together in what looks like a tangle of green shrubby bushes. Not so however, because when the page is turned, we see the birds are actually perched in the latticed scaffolded rafters that support a home built along a riverbank. Score one for distinctive design and visual storytelling.
A family lives in this home: Pa, Ma, the kids Cauã and Inaê, and a handsome pet tortoise, Titi. The reader arrives just as young Cauã and Inaê are climbing down the ladder into the boat that will take them to school for the day. The scene feels ordinary and familiar; the kids, after all, eat bananas and carry knapsacks just like kids do all over the world. But life along the Tapajós River follows a very different cycle.
Floating down the river the reader travels along. Passing by the riverside livestock, dodging feisty alligators, playing with delightful pink porpoises, and through the colorful yellow, red and green of the animated village activity, the kids arrive at the raised, stilt-mounted school. While the kids are at school the time comes for their annual season transition: the rains have arrived. All of this is illustrated in a lighthearted detail with an expressive energy. Score two for a multitude of creative touches.
During the summer dry season, the family lives in the riverbank stilt house. During the winter rainy season, they must move to drier land while their dry season house becomes flooded. Every year, the same cycle occurs, and the children are used to moving everything at a moment’s notice and setting up their winter rainy season house down river. Smack in the middle of the school day, the move is on.
The boat driver is able to get Cauã and Inaê back home just as their family is pulling away from their house with all of their belongings loaded up on a river barge. All the possessions, that is, except for Titi, their pet tortoise, who is left behind, overlooked in the downpour and commotion. Tragic news because tortoises can’t swim.
The fabulous pictures also get rained upon with an inundation of white hash marks that translate well into a rainstorm. Everything and everyone (including, in effect, the reader) is soaked through and through. We begin to dry out as we reach a new homestead and quickly get set up in our winter dwelling in time to hang up our hammocks, nestle in safe and sound, and only then do Cauã and Inaê realize, Titi is missing. A bold and brash clandestine rescue mission is launched. Score three for spot-on drama and tension.
So far, this book is a winner on all accounts, with interesting bonus facts page tucked in at the end to round it out. The nit-picky downside is in the narrative translation from the original Portuguese (one assumes based on the fact that this book was first published in Brazil). Grammar issues such as, “Me and Zé love playing with the alligators,” make it unclear as to whether this was a translation mistake or intended as an innocent childlike rendition of colloquial speech. Other uncomfortable phrasings make one assume the former. The text, in general, is not nearly as inspiring as the pictures, which, given that there was an award-winning translator involved in the project, is unfortunate.
One final comment on the translation is that it is difficult throughout the book to determine which child is the narrator. While it may be that they are the equivalent of an English Jack and Jill, the names Cauã and Inaê are not indicative in English of a specific gender. Consequently this confusion makes the siblings seem interchangeable.
We do not learn until the family has already reached their new winter location, more than halfway through the story, that Cauã is the narrator. We then can only tell that Cauã is the boy based on the clothing he is wearing. A better translation would have included this designation in the initial introduction of the family when we first met them on page one (Pa, Ma, Brother Cauã, Sister Inaê) just outside of their house. Establishing this minor detail earlier on would have made for a better flow throughout with focus solidly centered on the action.
In spite of these quirks, Along the Tapajós is an exciting book with an intriguing lifestyle story, filled with stunning, vibrant and unique illustrations. So much so that one will want to seek out what other books can be found by Vilela, who incidentally is an award-winning author and illustrator with dozens of books to his credit. Sadly, nothing more is available in the U.S. Hopefully Amazon Crossing will catch on and translate his other titles soon.