When Bonnie from Earthshaker Books contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing Zan-Gah: A Prehistoric Adventure and it's sequel, Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country, by Allan Richard Shickman I was excited, but a little hesitant. Prehistoric books about a young man's coming of age aren't quite my normal fare. I've been reading a fair share of young adult literature lately, but these books are aimed at a slightly younger audience and seemed kind of like boys' books. Would I like them? Would I be able to give an objective opinion? I promised Bonnie I'd do my best. Besides, this was a good opportunity to read something a little bit different.
When the signed copies (!) of my books arrived I was relieved to see that they were both fairly short-around 150 pages each. I figured I would be able to get through them pretty quickly, even if I didn't like them. One thing that immediately caught my attention was the cover of Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country. I knew a lot of bloggers would be excited to see a cover that hasn't been white-washed.* As I was reading both books, I assumed that they took place in Africa. I say that only because there were lions in the stories, and as far as I knew, lions=Africa. There were mammoths too though, and a little bit of internet research tells me that, based on the wildlife, these stories could have taken place in many different locations. While reading about Zan-Gah's adventures, I was reminded not only of Africa, but of Australia, Venezuela and even New Zealand as well. The boy on the cover has a sort of undefined (to me anyway) native look to him that would allow him to fit in any number of exotic locations.
So, what did I think about the books themselves? I have to admit, I'm having a hard time deciding how I feel about these. I didn't love them, but I wouldn't not recommend them either. I think part of the problem I'm having is trying to figure out if these would appeal to a younger audience or not. Zan-Gah goes a lot of places, meets a lot of people, and has a lot of adventures. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like most of his adventures were that exciting; but I don't know if that's because I'm reading them from an adult perspective or if they really just aren't that exciting. Would a young boy, imagining himself in Zan-Gah's world, be more excited about Zan-Gah's battles with lions and warring tribes, his solo quest to find and rescue his missing twin brother, his invention of new weapons and surviving in the wilderness? I don't know. Maybe.
I have to also admit that I couldn't help but compare these books to the Earth's Children books (Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.), so perhaps that was part of the problem as well. I felt like I had read about some of Zan-Gah's adventures before, not to mention the fact that a lion hunt in any of the Earth's Children's books would have been as long as one of the Zan-Gah books all by itself-certainly nothing that could be expected to hold a child's attention. So, here again, perhaps I'm suffering from a bout of adult-reader syndrome.
I have to say that I think most of my quibbles are minor ones. I felt like there was some inconsistency with the narration during the first couple of chapters. It went from putting you in the middle of the action, right along with Zan-Gah, to being a little history text-book-ish, but that seemed to resolve itself fairly quickly.
Also, I don't know how historically accurate the books are. I don't mean I doubt the author's accuracy, I just mean I honestly don't know how much is based on historical evidence and how much is just story. For example, at one point, the toughness of the men of the time is indicated by talking about how a chopped off finger would hardly be noticed. Maybe this is the case-certainly these were no times for wimps!-but would gangrene have been cause for concern over a lost finger? Again, I don't know, but these are things that I thought about while reading. I wish the author would have included some kind of an afterword or addendum about what sort of research he did or where his ideas came from. Not only would this be interesting, but I think it would be a good opportunity to encourage kids to do their own research on far-away places or different cultures.
Despite these minor issues, I think both books have a lot to offer. The publisher's web site includes a section for teachers that talks about the books' usefulness in the classroom, and I would agree with this completely (although the section refers specifically to the first book, I think this would apply to both books). There are great opportunities for learning about different climates and the life forms that inhabit them. Zan-Gah travels through deserts, caves, fertile areas, and salt flats all the while experiencing the different geographies, plants, and animals that go along with all of these.
Although the female characters in these books are fairly minor, they are mostly strong and respected in one way or another. Also respected is any attempt at conflict resolution that does not result in war. Without being preachy, the author manages to convey that war and violence are hardly ever the best answer. There are also interesting tribes like the wasp people who live in hive-like structures and the red people who paint themselves to blend into their desert surroundings. I don't know if these are based on any actual tribes or just products of the author's imagination, but, again, I can see how this could translate into a fun exercise for kids, a way to imagine how a person or a culture could adapt to different environments.
Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country, opens with some additional information about Zan-Gah's twin brother, Dael. His disappearance, which was a mystery in the first book, is explained and there is a quick but thorough recap of the previous book.
Overall, I enjoyed Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country better, but I had a hard time with Dael's character. When he goes missing, he is a kind, care-free, fun-loving boy. Now he is a mean, misogynistic, hurtful individual full of anger and spite for his twin brother, whom he once loved dearly. This schism between the brothers causes friction within the tribe as Zan-Gah tries to lead them to a prosperous and peaceful life in a new location, the beautiful country once occupied by an enemy tribe. This beautiful country also lies near an active volcano, a volcano whose fury and explosive behavior resonates with Dael who comes to see the volcano as his god. Dael is clearly traumatized by whatever happened during his missing years, and there doesn't seem to be anything anyone can do except wait for him to work through it and suffer the consequences of his rage in the meantime. I felt like the author was trying to say that everyone has to work through his own demons in his own way and that it's OK to be traumatized by traumatic events and that kids might not always know how to talk about those events, so acting out may be their only way to deal with their feelings. These are all fine points, but it was extremely frustrating to read about, and I'm not sure how I feel about the final resolution.
I was also frustrated by the women's roles in this book at first. At the end of the previous book, the women had gained a place of respect and authority; but by the beginning of the second book, that all seemed to have disappeared. What happened? I'm not sure, but by the end of the book, I felt better about their roles again. One other note about the characters in this book: There is one character that I believe is meant to be gay. While it's never explicitly stated, he is clearly different from the rest of the crowd, and at one point he does say that he "could never love or marry any woman". Although he does endure a bit of abuse from Dael and his followers (who doesn't in this book?), he is ultimately loved and appreciated for who he is, a kind, intelligent, creative person and a loyal friend.
So...all in all, even though these books weren't necessarily my cup of tea, I would certainly recommend them for young readers. I think they provide ample opportunities for learning both in the classroom and at home. Not only do they offer good opportunities to introduce new factual information but they also provide adults with plenty of situations to ask a child, "What would you do in this situation?"
Zan-Gah: A Prehistoric Adventure was awarded an Eric Hoffer Award in 2008 for Excellence in Independent Publication, was a finalist for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year Award for YA Fiction in 2007, and both books were recently inducted as Gold Recipients of the Mom's Choice Awards® for YA Series.
If you are interested in finding out more about Zan-Gah, you can read the first chapter on line. Visit the Earthshaker Books website and click on Sample Chapter.
If you or someone you know would be interested in reading these books, please leave me a comment by September 15th, and I will do a drawing for the set. I would love to hear how parents and children might respond to these books.
A big thank you to Bonnie at Earthshaker Books for sending me these free copies!
*White-washing is the practice of putting a white character on the cover of a book, even if the image has nothing to do with the main character(s) in the book.