|Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews|
Peter Beard. Zara's Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa.
Alfred A. Knopf. 2004.
Ages 10 and Up
Peter Beard is famous for his photographs and personal diaries about Africa. He has spent decades in the continent living the life of an adventurer, explorer, writer, and all around storyteller. His stuff is always fascinating and exciting but also filled with concern about the future of the threatened wildlife that is such a big part of his life. In Zara's Tales he has collected several of the stories most favored by his young daughter and then reproduced them with outstanding pictures and illustrations. It's classic Beard and a great place to begin a new reader's immersion into his world. It's also an outstanding book for young future explorers.
I've always been interested by Beard's work, mostly from an armchair traveler perspective. He has lived a life that is so alien to my own, and lived it in such a large way, that I find him completely irresistible. Zara's Tales is a great opportunity to read Beard in bits and pieces, to dip into short stories that reveal enough about his African adventures to entice and entertain without being overwhelming. From the start he drops his readers right into the life at Hog Ranch, his forty-acre ranch in Kenya built so that he "would never be off safari." It is time to read about 300-pound warthogs, battling rhinos, crocodile hunts and the man-eating lions of Tsavo. Everything, essentially, that you want Africa to be.
There is not one single dull moment in this collection. You will not believe some of the things that Beard has done, mostly because it would never occur to anyone to attempt such activities, let alone relish them so deeply. But that is exactly what makes his stories so appealing and why young adult readers will love them so much. Few of us will ever be hired to rope rhinos or photograph elephants or chart the lives of crocodiles. Beard has done it and loved it, and he will make converts of even the most ardent anti-environmentalist (are there any such people anymore?). And just in case you think that maybe he is some sort of Superman, when he writes about surviving an elephant attack, he makes it clear that his choices put him in very dangerous, life-threatening situations. This is realistic adventure writing, not silly "Fear Factor" stuff. Beard is the real deal, and a far better model for living life completely then any of those silly folks on reality tv.
For the publisher, this book will be largely marketed to adults, I imagine, and will be considered more of gift item for fathers than sons. That is a big mistake, I think, because it is exactly the sort of book teens and preteens desperately need. Don't show them something predictable; show them the world. Peter Beard has been giving his daughter these stories since he was born. Don't you think it's time you give them to your kids?