In The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1987, p. 478), a reviewer notes of Steptoe's (1987) celebrated and award winning Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters that the story is a "polished retelling of one from G. M. Theal's Kaffir Folktales." The actual title is Kaffir Folklore(Theal 1886), and there is no tale in that collection that remotely resembles the one in the picture book. Maybe getting a title right is a scholarly hang-up, but it does seem reasonable to expect a reviewer who claims something is a "polished retelling" at least to look in the card catalog. To his credit, Steptoe (1988) points out that he was simply inspired by Theal's book to explore Zimbabwe tradition and come up with his own story, that he "did not write and illustrate a special interest picture book," one "said to be based on an African tale." Yet, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters is reviewed, sold, classified, and, awarded, I presume, as an "African" tale.
Regardless if this is folklore or fakelore this is a beautiful book. The story begins with an African villager, Mufaro, who has two beautiful daughters. The only thing these two have in common is their father and their outer beauty. On the inside they are stark opposites. Manyara is selfish with a quick temper while Nyasha is kind and calm. When Mufaro hears that the Great King wanted a wife, Mufaro agrees that both girls shall have a chance to marry the king. Manyara tries to manipulate her father but he replies, “No, Manyara, I cannot send you alone. Only a king can choose between two such worthy daughters. Both of you must go!”
Just as one might suspect, Manyara leaves in the middle of the night to arrive before her sister. They both encounter trials along the way and their responses to these experiences determine whether or not they are fit for the king.
The illustrations entitled this book to receive the Caldecott Honor. The colorful ink and watercolor on glossy paper gives a radiant clarity to the illustrations. According to Steptoe, the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region. There is a beautiful full bleed spread as Nyasha is looking out over the city and her father stands a short distance behind her. “A great spirit must stand guard here! Just look at what lies before us. I never in all my life dreamed there be anything so beautiful.” It is here that we are drawn into to the tenderness of Nyasha. She is grateful and appreciative to plants, animals, people, and the city. The scene is filled with many vertical and horizontal lines that suggest tranquility and stability.
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is similar to our Cinderella story. There is punishment for evil and reward for kindness. Even if this version is not authentic I think many will be able to identify with the story and appreciate Steptoe’s work.