Today is International Nelson Mandela Day, celebrated in honor of Nelson Mandela, the beloved civil rights leader of South Africa, who became president after 27 years in exile. In honor of this day, I am re-posting my February review of the children’s picture book Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson that tells the story of his life. It is one of the most beautifully illustrated children’s books I’ve ever seen, and beautifully told.
Nelson Mandela wasn’t always a man who fought to end injustice. Like all men, he was once a boy, who happened to learn that injustice lived, and decided to fight against it. The beautifully illustrated picture book tells Mandela’s life story beginning with his childhood, when at age 7, upon his father’s death, he is sent to live with a famous African Chief. The Chief tells young Mandela stories of old Africa, where Africans of all colors and creeds lived together in harmony. The story explains how Europeans invaded Africa and began apartheid, where Africans were forced to live separately, based on their race.
The story then chronicles Mandela’s journey from college to being a lawyer, and then a leader of the people, speaking out against apartheid. He organized rallies and the people loved him, but the state hated his defiance, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Mandela then went into hiding, and visited free African nations – Liberia, Morocco, and Egypt. On his attempt to return home to South Africa to continue his work fighting discrimination, he was arrested and jailed for 27 years. But Mandela stayed strong, and upon his release from jail, he was greeted and cheered on by the people of South Africa, who he told to forget the pain of the past, but to continue to fight for justice. Mandela was later elected by the people of South Africa to lead their nation.
Nelson Mandela is told as beautifully as an old spiritual, and the illustrations are so beautiful, they could be hung on a museum wall. What makes this book great is that it tells Mandela’s story in a way that children can understand, even if read on their own. It’s ability to emote sadness, anger, and in the end victory and joy, is what makes it so great. It is a story of freedom that all children should know, no matter their race or nationality, and one that could easily become an American classic.