At a keiki birthday party last weekend, when brothers Henry and Wayne Panui busted out their ‘ukuleles and began to play, strumming and singing, improvising and laughing as they played, the children turned and watched in silent awe. This event was proof the ‘ukulele ranks as high in coolness to kids as any surfboard, pirate, monkey, bike or talking dog (in a children’s book that is). This is why the recent release of “Kula and the Old ‘Ukulele” written by Lance Wheeler, illustrated by Jon J. Murakami (Mutual, $12.95) uses a perfect object, an old ‘ukulele, to grab its young audience to impart the larger themes of the book.
What themes, you ask? In the first pages, we learn a little boy named Kula has a Tutu Kane who is very poor: “His lauhala hat was all shredded up, and his T-shirt was torn at the sleeves.” Therefore Kula announces to his Tutu Kane on his eighth birthday “I don’t want a thing. I don’t want more than I already have.” Kula’s altruism (however unlikely for an 8-year-old) is a refreshing attribute for a child to possess, not only showing compassion and understanding for his family’s economic situation, but showing unselfishness in this age of consumerism, when many children have a bad case of the “gimmies.”
Despite Kula’s selflessness, Tutu Kane gifts Kula with an old ‘ukulele and instructs Kula, “If you keep practicing, you’ll really go far,” and here Wheeler weaves in even more important themes pertinent to our time. The old, used ‘ukulele as a gift highlights Jack Johnson’s song from the “Curious George” soundtrack, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Tutu Kane is not only resourceful but environmentally conscious as well. Moreover, the well-known theme of ‘practice makes perfect’ (as Kula learns when he and his “uke” enter the “town talent show”) cannot be repeated enough to youth as a key to success, just ask Jake Shimabukuro.
The 32 pages of Wheeler’s rhyming text partners smoothly with the playful font. And Murakami’s pastel sketches and illustrations are exactly what children ages 4 to 8 would order: Brightly colored caricatures with quirky details, such as a dog in a pink tutu and a pineapple-juggling baby backstage at the talent show. The illustrations are a great balancing act with the larger, worldly themes of the text. Now let’s see just what happens after children read it; will they adopt an altruistic air as well, or ask for an ‘ukulele as soon as possible? Either response is good one.