This past year has seen an explosion of discussion enter the mainstream about racial injustice and police brutality. Globally, Black Lives Matter protests and other anti-colonial movements have brought to public consciousness the uncomfortable conversations many Black parents have been having with their children for generations: that this is not a society created for them. In this world, they always have to work twice as hard to get half as much. Stéphane Martelly’s Little Girl Gazelle, illustrated by Albin Christen and translated from French by Katia Grubisic, takes this multi-generational discussion and flips it on its head, using poetry and art to transform it into a message of encouragement and pride.
Little Girl Gazelle tells the story of a young Black girl running. She is warned by her father that she will always have no choice but to do so. She is in a race, the book states, that “started without her.” But her mother reframes the situation by highlighting her daughter’s inner strength, explaining that even though she was born into an unfair society, she has the power to run, to fly.
This message comes alive in the book’s use of full-page art and strategically placed poetry. Christen uses black-and-white images and depictions of ancient African art, contemporary technology, and modern society to show that this race indeed started long before the little girl was born. The illustrations show society as stuck in an endless cycle, with some members breezing through the race without having to use their own power. But that’s not the case for the heroine, whose efforts and courage pull her through. As she runs, Christen adds petals of colour in her wake, breaking up the dreary black-and-white illustrations and highlighting her strength.
Martelly’s poetry shapes and contours with the artwork and matches the little girl’s movements. At times, she seems to be chasing the verses, as if words themselves are part of the race. Some words leap ahead of the rest of their sentences. The text reinforces the fact that society is cruel and competitive, and some must use all their muscles, wits, and courage to catch up, dodging harmful words along the way. But in the end, Martelly signals that her heroine’s efforts are not in vain and words can’t hold her back for long.
The book’s language is poetic, but not difficult, and will resonate with readers regardless of age. Christen’s final brush of colour signals the hope that one day society will change and this little girl and other gazelles will no longer have to run an unequal race, giving them the chance to enjoy the wonders of the world that are often missed while endlessly pushing and leaping forward.