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Thank You, Omu!

We sometimes think of collage as an art form that we learned in elementary school — cut or torn pieces of paper, pictures from magazines, newspapers, etc., all pasted together to convey a message or paint a picture. Few of us have ever used collage to tell an entire story, nor has our work been as skilled and talented as that of Oge Mora, the author and illustrator of Thank You, Omu!

Thank You, Omu! takes us to Omu’s (the Igbo word for queen) apartment on the corner of First and Long streets in an unnamed city, where she is preparing a delicious red stew for her evening meal. As the smell of her stew wafts through the neighborhood, Omu gets a string of visitors hoping for a taste of her dinner. Omu generously shares her meal but then finds that, at dinnertime, there is nothing left for herself. It appears that Omu’s generosity has worked to her detriment, until the community that has benefited from her largesse comes to thank her with a delicious meal to share.

The choice of collage as illustration medium for this sweet story adds depth and dimension, which on many levels can be seen as metaphorical — the stew (many ingredients making a delicious dish); the community (many different people coming together); and the collages (many different materials coming together to create a beautiful picture). Omu’s neighbors — children, adults, professionals, blue-collar workers, and artists — are different colors, and by the end of the story they gather together through Omu’s extraordinary generosity. Through seemingly simple words and art, Mora paints a picture of what America strives to be. The proverbial “melting pot” is the narrative America tells about itself, despite the current political climate, where immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized humans fight to assert and maintain their claim to America’s story. There is an underlying intentionality about the messaging in this book, as the artwork itself is dependent upon things that we would normally devalue and throw away (old books, newspapers, pieces of cloth), things that many of us would find useless — but in the hands of an artist become the medium to tell a story. It is Mora’s story, one based on her Nigerian grandmother, the food that she cooked, the neighborhood that she lived in, the author’s connection to Nigeria and to America, and her ability to rightfully claim both her African-ness and her American-ness.

The visible textural quality of Mora’s collage work beckons us to touch the pages — the crinkles, edges, and lines that are created by the paper and textiles she uses. Of course, the vivid images don’t offer their original tactile experience, but they do offer a visual experience beyond pen and paper, paint and canvas. Mora’s work invites the readers into the possibility of creating a whole world from scraps, pieces, and seemingly worthless objects. We, too, can be the creators, architects, and builders of a better world with just the simple tools of in our hands — in Omu’s case, the ability to make a delicious stew that invites and unites a community. Thank You, Omu! seems to challenge each of us to reflect on our own gifts and how to use them to invite and unite others into our story. What beautiful, delicious gifts do we hold and how do we aspire to open our hands and hearts as an offering to the world? In Thank You, Omu! we are reminded of the intrinsic values of cultural expression and connection — and reminded that, when we share what we have, there is always enough.

About Monique Harris

Monique Harris is a public educator, reading specialist and independent educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science degree in Education from Simmons College. She resides in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Comments

  1. I now have the book in front of me finally after returning from the neighboring Cliffside Park Public Library a trip precariously negotiated during an intense North Jersey snowstorm. I am thrilled to say this magnificent gem was worth the trip and well deserves Caldecott scrutiny. Great too that the Horn Book and Ms. Hariis who wrote a superlative essay here decided to add this on to the original “We’re Off” post by Julie Danielson. This is a collage work par excellence, a moving give and share fable that compellingly recalls all renditions of the beloved “Stone Soup” and also a subtle salute to the classic “Strega Nona” by Tomie dePaola. I really agree with you on the sensory appeal and the sense of touch especially and that people who share will always achieve their just rewards. This is really a stunning, stunning book and once again the committee should be scratching their heads wondering how it is possible to have so many great books in a single year. Fantastic review!!

  2. Wonderful piece, Monique. I am looking forward to reading Thank You, Omu!

  3. Update: Finally got my hands on this book and can we just say CALDECOTT?!!

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