By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Long, long ago, like a pearl around a grain of sand, the Kingdom of Morocco formed at the edge of the great, dry Sahara. It had fountains of cool, refreshing water to quench the thirst of the desert, and storytellers to bring the people together.
But as the kingdom grew, the people forgot the dangers of the desert, and they forgot about the storytellers, too. All but one young boy, who came to the Great Square for a drink and found something that quenched his thirst even better: wonderful stories. As he listened to the last storyteller recount the Endless Drought, and the Glorious Blue Water Bird, he discovered the power of a tale well told.
Hmmm…I don’t know about this book. On the first read through I enjoyed it and despite it’s complexity so did my daughter. But now looking at it in the morning, with fresh eyes, it feels a little exoticised. Moroccans telling stories and their swirling desert landscape brings to mind a colonial era fantasy. The first paragraph in the description above is the first paragraph in the book. It’s a little flowery. Not a bad thing, I just worry that it’s drawing on a stereotype of Arab storytellers and souks and the like.
The story itself is fascinating. It’s a story within a story within a story with an incredible twist at the very end that cleverly adds yet another layer. It also draws on the Thousand and One Nights. I think it would make a great teaching tool for writing stories. Still, it doesn’t appear to be traditional, just set in a “traditional” setting and this is compounded by the fact that the author is a white man. He is drawing from a tradition of storytelling in Morocco, a tradition that is apparently dying out, as he explains in a note at the end. I do appreciate the note and sources provided and maybe it’s not a bad thing that he didn’t appropriate an actual story? See why I’m confused?
The book is probably worth it for the illustrations. Because it’s a story about the desert and water the colors are all natural sandy tones with some brownish reds and greens and purples accented with a deep, beautiful blue. Each page has a border that is vaguely North African, but lovely. There are lots of lines and angles and the people are all fairly stylized. I worried the clothing made them all see like the Other in the past with traditional clothing. However, SPOILER ALERT, the final spread features the boy of the story all grown up telling a story. When he is young the clothing is more traditional, but the people in his crowd are mixed in what they look like and are wearing giving it a more contemporary feel and bringing the story current. Quick sketchy lines and subtle patterns add details to the pages, while objects and people in backgrounds are watery splashes of color. The cover seen here doesn’t do it justice. The oranges and yellows are super saturated and the title and border are shiny gold. While the pictures are quite complex, they have the feel of childish art, art that a child could recreate. Some of it looks like it was done in marker and reminded me of Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera Williams. I love it when picture books do that. I could see it inspiring art either in the classroom or at home.
I really want to like the book. Putting aside it’s problems the story is unlike anything I’ve read (that’s not to say there aren’t other stories out there like this) and the illustrations are stunning. It would make a great language arts text for fourth or fifth grade. But it feels problematic to me. I would suggest seeing if you can get it from your public library to assess whether it’s something you would want in your collection. I think you could address some of the issues if you were using it as a classroom book and it might depend on what the Arab portion of your collection looks like. Still…hm.