Written by Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris, Illustrated by Jon Cannell
Marshall Cavendish Children, 2010
Shhhhhhh. Look. The moon. The moon over Paris!
Did You Know? Giraffes have the shortest sleep requirements of any mammal and can function on less than 15 minutes of sleep.
Belle, the young giraffe, is a gift from the pasha of Egypt to the king of France and a servant named Atir accompanies her as a caretaker on her journey to Paris. They travel by boat on the Nile, with cows aboard to provide milk and antelopes aboard to provide company for Belle. The captain cuts a hole in the deck so that Belle can stay safely below deck with her head sticking out. When Belle arrives in Marseilles, the people are fascinated, having never seen a giraffe before, and they throw big fancy parties in her honor. But Atir has to get Belle to Paris somehow and a professor from the Museum of Natural History takes charge of the expedition and plots out a route to walk to Paris. They make Belle a waterproof outfit to protect her from rain, sun and wind and cover her feet with boots. Belle and her entourage are welcomed into Paris like heroes and she eats rose petals from the king’s hand. Atir stays with Belle and over 600,000 people come to see her.
Authors Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris do a fantastic job of taking this complex and fascinating historical tale and working it into a delightful children’s story that prompted me to go learn more almost immediately after reading. They include a paragraph with a few more details in the back of the book, as well as a pronunciation guide for the French words included in the book’s text. (I love pronunciation guides!) The full story is even more interesting, because the gift of Belle, (or Zarafa, as many called her) was mostly a political and diplomatic move by the Egyptians (much like China’s gift of pandas to the U.S. in the 1970’s). Atir was a real person and, although his point-of-view narration here is fictional, it’s easy to imagine him sharing the important points of this historic journey.
Jon Cannell’s illustrations are done in watercolor and ink and the story is sprinkled with paintings and photographs, as well, including an actual ticket to see Belle and a diagram of the outfit that was made for her to wear on her walk. After her death, Belle was stuffed and kept on display in the Jardin des Plantes for many years before she was transferred to the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle, France. I really enjoyed this book and the time I spent researching more about this interesting and unknown slice of history.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that people will always be fascinated by new and exotic things that they have never seen.