"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor," observed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Anglican cleric and theologian who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work to end apartheid. "If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
Matt Meyer, whose work centers on dismantling systems of oppression, and Khim Fam, whose paintings create magical worlds that foster connection, have teamed up to bring this analogy alive for children. In their story, a mouse named Desmond lives in a beautiful meadow and sleeps under starry skies. When he awakes to find an elephant sleeping on his tail, though, he's literally stuck. No amount of pushing or pulling on his part does any good.
So when a giraffe passes by, Desmond asks for help. To his dismay, the giraffe replies, "I find it's best to not get involved in other animals' business. I find it's best to remain neutral in times like this." A gazelle comes by, and virtually the exact same encounter repeats. In both cases, Desmond tells the neutral animals, echoing Archbishop Tutu's words, "I do not appreciate your neutrality."
Fortunately, his mouse friends, though tiny like he is, are not nearly so dispassionate. They band together to solve — with no small difficulty — the problem of freeing their comrade. Their actions highlight how solidarity and unity can bring about freedom even when the odds are seriously stacked against us.
Fam's gentle, expressive watercolors greatly enhance the story line by endearing us to Desmond and his friends. They are adorable, and one can see from their faces and body language how hard they try to get Desmond free — and how they celebrate once they succeed.
While Desmond Gets Free is busy introducing children ages four to eight to the importance of being an ally, it meaningfully pricks the conscience of adults who share the book with young readers. Our hats are off to Meyer and Fam for seeing the potential in Archbishop Tutu's quote and reminding us all to foster compassionate understanding that leads to action.