14 Cows for America

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the publication of the New York Times bestselling picture book 14 Cows for America, Peachtree’s President and Publisher Margaret Quinlin reflects on the creation and development of the book. 

Q: What was your reaction the first time you saw the work that would become 14 Cows for America?

A: Often a first look at a manuscript requires seeing beyond what is before you, imagining what a work can become. That was not so with 14 Cows for America. Our first look saw a near perfect work. Our challenge was to bring the story to life with the right illustrator.

And that was easier said than done. How best to approach this challenge? The work was nonfiction, so a realistic treatment seemed right, but given the poetry of the words and the grand nature of the gift at the heart of the story, we needed art with beauty and strong aesthetic.

Q: How did you discover artist Thomas Gonzalez?

A: Carmen and I spent many hours discussing illustrator possibilities. During these deliberations but quite apart from them, Carmen’s family and Tom Gonzalez’s family met at a gathering of Cuban refugees in Atlanta and shared information about their children. Because Tom and Carmen were both artists, their parents thought they should meet. So they did! Carmen gave Tom a few of the manuscripts she was working on to provide insight into the publishing process. Tom already had a long career in commercial art, including as art director at Coca Cola. Carmen told me about Tom, how talented she thought he was, and that he was interested in illustrating.

14 Cows for America Staffs IllustrationOut of the blue, I got an email from Tom containing developed sketches in color for 14 Cows for America! He had selected this manuscript from the ones Carmen had given him, and he was so inspired by it that he sat down and began to sketch. Resistance was futile for me: despite having been intent on other directions in the choice of illustrator, Tom’s art slipped into my brain and lodged itself there. It became the visual depiction of the story for me. One of the most powerful images showed fourteen herders’ staffs against a blue sky. He had imagined this as a cover illustration, and we worked with that image for a time, but later decided that the cover needed an image more iconic of Africa. In the end we selected the landscape scene with an acacia tree for the cover. We used the illustration of the staffs on the back endpapers. 14 Cows for America Red PaletteThe opening of the book, including the front endpapers, is dominated by a red-orange palette, and the conclusion of the book moves to a sky-blue palette. For us, this was symbolic of the story which began with the fiery chaos of hate and ended with acceptance and love represented by the cool color of sky blue. This design decision is one of my favorite artistic elements in the book.

We decided to offer Tom the opportunity to illustrate the book. This meant making a commitment to work very closely with him as he developed the artwork to ensure that it adhered to the traditions of a children’s picture book because this would be his first effort. Tom threw himself into the process and was willing to go back again and again to make everything right. I admire him for this so very much.

Q: How did Kimeli Naiyomah become involved with the book?

A: Carmen and I began to think carefully about the story and the figure at the heart of it: Kimeli Naiyomah, the young Maasai warrior who had been studying at Stanford and was in NYC on 9/11 visiting with the Kenyan ambassador at the UN. He was a person living in the world; this was his story. We decided that we could not move forward without locating him and securing his agreement on our use of the story in a children’s picture book. This was a scary decision. We both loved the story and the manuscript, and we now had an illustrator who could help us bring it to life. What if Kimeli did not want us to proceed?

We had no choice. Contacting Kimeli was the right thing to do.

Wilson KimeliWe located Kimeli through the Stanford alumni office, and Carmen sent an email to him. We waited. Soon an email came in return: he was very interested and had been developing notes himself for a memoir. Carmen called Kimeli and they talked for hours. We later met with him and found him to be such a remarkable young man, a great storyteller in his own right, and wise beyond his years. Carmen offered to bring him into the project as a collaborator. While she had written the manuscript and would retain full authorial control, Kimeli would vet the text and the artwork for us, and he would write an afterword for the book.

Kimeli was a wonderful addition to the group, and we had many productive sessions with him and Tom and Loraine Joyner, Peachtree’s art director at the time. Slowly we saw the book take shape.

Q: How did you feel when you finally published 14 Cows for America?

A: In part, I was nervous. I loved the book, and when you love a project you are working on that much, you hope your instincts are not tricking you. Each of us involved with the development of the book regarded it as sacred—as sacred as the gift made by the Maasai. We shared a commitment to keeping the story alive and making it accessible to children. In the end, my worries were not necessary. The response was overwhelming. Ellen Myrick was the first person outside of Peachtree to see the early proofs, and I knew by her reaction that we had accomplished what we set out to do.

Q: How have the literary, library, and education communities received the book over the ten years it’s been in print?

A: Over these past ten years, we have encountered many dedicated educators and librarians who have been so supportive of the book. Lucy Calkins stands out as one of the strongest early proponents of it.  Her quote is permanently etched in the brain: “I can’t remember a book that was more powerful, ever.” We remain deeply grateful to her for her wonderful support of the work and the author.

Educators did successfully incorporate the book into their classroom materials and encouraged children to think about compassionate acts inspired by the gift of the Maasai.

From Anaheim, California, to Austin, Texas, to New York, New York, the response was the same. People who encountered the book were moved—often to tears—by the story, loving its message of peace and compassion and concern for humanity. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers had the most emotional responses. They had lived through the tragedy of 9/11. This book shifted the perspective: 9/11 was about hate and destruction and a disregard for life; but that is only a part of our humanity. There is also goodness, kindness, and compassion. This is the juxtaposition at the heart of the story, which is ultimately very reassuring for us all.