Reviewed for Children: The Story of a Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow
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The Story of a Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow by Luis Sepúlveda opens with a note from the author on the origin of the book.
The author’s small grandson, Daniel, was studying a snail in the garden when, all at once, the boy looked up to his Grandpa and asked a very difficult question: why are snails so slow? Now, some Grandpa’s might have given the short answer; they just are. Luis Sepúlveda, however, is a far cry from your average Grandpa.
The story of Luis Sepúlveda is a captivating tale in itself. Sepúlveda was born in Chile, in 1949, the son of a mother who was a nurse and a father who was a militant communist. This parentage alone goes a long way to explaining the combination of defiance and gentle nurturing blended into the words he writes for children in this book and his previous best-seller, The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly.
Sepúlveda’s earliest political activity led to imprisonment under Pinochet’s dictatorship. His release to house arrest, after two and a half years, was brought about by the intercession of the German branch of Amnesty International.
Sepúlveda escaped house arrest and went underground. He set up a drama group which became a focus of resistance before being rearrested and this time given a life sentence. A second intercession by Amnesty resulted in this sentence being commuted to eight years of exile which were to be spent teaching Spanish Literature in Sweden. Sepúlveda had other plans so, during the first stopover at Buenos Aires, he again escaped authorities and made his way, via Uraguay and then Paraguay, to a safe berth with a friend in Ecuador.
There, he founded another theatrical company and later took part in a UNESCO expedition to live with the native Shuar tribe and study the impact of colonization on their lives and culture.
In 1979, Sepúlveda fought with the Simón Bolívar International Brigade in Nicaragua. After the success of the revolution, he made that delayed trip to Europe. Putting the German he had learned in prison to good use, Sepulvéda worked for some years as a journalist based in Hamburg. From 1982 to 1987 he worked as a crewmember on a Greenpeace ship.
As I said then, Luis Sepúlveda is not your average Grandpa. When his grandson asked why snails are so slow, Sepúlveda did not give the short reply. Instead, promising to come back with a good answer, he went away and thought deeply about the question. He writes in his introduction that he prides himself on keeping his promises and, given his history, I tend to believe him.
This book is his response.
The Story of a Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow is written for Early Readers, in the seven to nine year old bracket, or, perhaps more appropriately, as a beautiful book for an adult to read aloud to young children. Delicate and effective illustrations are provided by Japanese artist Satoshi Kitamura whose previous work includes the translation of the Elmer, The Patchwork Elephant series for the Japanese market.
The translation of Sepúlveda’s book into English is by Nick Caistor, who has translated the works of Manuel Vasquez Montalban, Eduardo Mendoza and Paulo Coelho. An idiosyncratic translation seemed to retain the sense of foreign language. Not only does this translation seem to capture the authentic voice of the author but also lends a notion that we are privileged to hear the voice of wisdom. Like Yoda this author is.
‘In a meadow close to your house or mine, there lived a colony of snails. They were quite sure they lived in the best place in the whole wide world.’
These snails knew, and accepted, that they were slow, oh-so-slow, in their movements and oh-so-quiet in their voices. They knew, also, that their slowness made them vulnerable and that their quietness hindered their ability to raise the alarm when they were in danger. They knew these facts but, so as not to be frightened by them, they preferred not to mention them. Slowly and silently they accepted what they were.
‘That’s life: there’s nothing we can do about it.’
Those snails were perfectly content being snails, staying damp under a Calycanthus bush and getting fat on yummy dandelion leaves. But there was one snail, there’s always one, who wanted to know WHY they were so slow. This one curious snail, despite the admonition of his elders, persists in asking the awkward questions that make every snail uncomfortable until they threaten him with exile just to shut him up and protect their peace of mind. Feeling upset that none of his fellow snails will support or defend him, the curious snail heads out into the world to find some answers and make a name for himself.
Combining the action of an adventure story with the wisdom of experience, The Story of a Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow is a perfectly formed fable about the constant, ceaseless jeopardy that is life.
When a whole population meets a new challenge, some will want to stick with what they know while others will race (however slowly) headlong into the unknown. Asking questions will often be seen as a challenge to authority but it is also the only way to move forward. Every population needs a rebel.
This is a book that will open the door to conversations with children about refugees, immigration, exile and the impact of humans on the environment. The lessons to be learned, however, are personal rather than political. Luis Sepúlveda’s oh-so-slow snail learns about co-operation, generosity and keeping courage when all around you lose their heads (or get stood on, as the case may be).
The Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow reminds us that speed is relative. When a snail takes a ride on a turtle’s back, he feels as if the grass in the meadow is whizzing by. We must each travel through life at our own pace. The important thing is to ask questions, ask for directions and grab a ride, when we need to, from speedier creatures.
Get to know a rebel; buy The Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow, here.