On the Back of Bigi Kayman
An important book about slavery, for children of 7 and up
How do you write about the history of slavery for younger readers of 7 and up? Henna Goudzand Nahar does so by steering clear of the vast background story about the transatlantic slave trade. And she also doesn’t mention that it was white people who enslaved black people en masse. This can only be deduced from Hedy Tjin’s expressive felt-tip illustrations.
Goudzand Nahar chooses to write from the perspective of Afi and Kofi, two enslaved children growing up on Master Jan’s Surinamese sugarcane plantation. In a simple but strong and effective text, she tells just enough to make it clear to young readers that enslaved people had very tough lives.
Afi, Kofi and their parents have to work hard, Master Jan puts all the money he makes into his own pocket, his family is allowed to sleep late and to wear shoes, but the enslaved people have to get up early and go around barefooted. Physical abuse also comes up briefly but without being carried out in the story: the children’s mother is at risk of being whipped if she does not work hard enough and the children know that anyone who tries to run away is punished so severely that they can’t walk anymore.
Even so, the two of them secretly decide to run away. Straight through the jungle, they head for the place in the swamp where escaped slaves live, in a reference to actual historical events in Suriname. According to a legend, the first runaways crossed the river on the back of a caiman. This is exactly what Goudzand Nahar has her protagonists do, while they sing the well-known Surinamese children’s song ‘Bigi Kayman’.
The story is beautifully designed as a small-format picture book, with plenty of space for the illustrations, which stand out with their distinctive use of colour and composition: the children’s hair is fluorescent pink, for instance, and Tjin often combines overview drawings (the sugarcane press) with details (hands with sugarcanes).