October 31, 2013
(+++) UNUSUAL APPROACHES
Deep in the Sahara. By Kelly Cunnane. Illustrated by Hoda Hadadi. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree. By Jane Kohuth. Illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles. Random House. $12.99.
My Pen Pal, Santa. By Melissa Stanton. Illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell. Random House. $9.99.
There is a certain sense of desperation in some circles to portray the positive side of Islam as a counterweight to the numerous acts of mass murder and viciousness perpetrated by criminal fanatics in the name of the religion. It is certainly true that the vast majority of those who practice Islam are peaceful and law-abiding, as are the vast majority of those who practice other religions or adhere to none. But it is also true that, at this stage in world history, Islam alone among religions has spawned worldwide terrorist fanaticism that has claimed the lives of many, many thousands of people of all faiths – Islam included. This makes the attempt to portray Islam as a benign force difficult, perhaps especially so in a book for children ages 4-8, which is what Deep in the Sahara is. Set in Mauritania, where Kelly Cunnane lived from 2008 to 2009, the book is avowedly intended to show that the full-body veils required to be worn by many Muslim women are not repressive but are simply colorful expressions of culture. Accordingly, the book tells the story of a young girl who very much wants to wear a malafa, the full-body garment of Mauritania, but who is repeatedly told that she wants one for the wrong reasons: it is not a garment intended for beauty, mystery, or even longstanding tradition, various relatives tell her. Eventually, the girl tells her mother that she wants a malafa “so I can pray like you do,” and her mother approves and allows her to wear one for prayer. Hoda Hadadi, an Iranian illustrator here producing her first book published in the United States, presents a very pretty, very sanitized view of Mauritanian and Islamic culture, with lovely stylized homes, prayer shown in many houses’ windows, a bare glimpse of men here and there to indicate that they even exist in the same society as do women, and other felicitous touches carefully designed to show off and showcase what seems to be an entirely benign, if somewhat unusual, system. There is no mention of any harsh realities, such as the recent announcement that an anti-slavery charity has designated Mauritania as the nation with the highest percentage of its population in slavery in the entire world. Parents who are comfortable providing their children with a one-sided, extremely positive viewpoint will like the simplicity and even-tempered nature of Deep in the Sahara. Those wanting their children to have a more comprehensive view and understanding of the world, and of the place of Islam within it, will need considerably more than this book to provide it.
Religion underlies Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree as well, in a very different way. Anne and her family were Jewish, and her famous diary was written as she and others hid in Amsterdam from the Nazis, who eventually found them and murdered them in the name of expunging Jews and all their supposed evils. This is a Step 3 book in the “Step into Reading” series, which means it is for “Reading on Your Own” for ages 5-8. This is a serious book that tells the story, in simplified but accurate form, of what happened to Anne and the other people who tried to hide from the Nazis in the same place. Young readers will find out about how Anne and the others lived day to day, who helped them, and how their lives developed – including the pervasive fear with which they all had to contend. The book’s title refers to a chestnut tree, outside the hiding place, that Anne saw and about which she wrote: “Nature made Anne feel that God had not left her.” The book explains that visitors can still visit the place where Anne was hidden, but that the tree she saw was knocked down by a storm in 2010 – yet saplings from its chestnuts are now growing in Amsterdam and throughout the world. This message of hope is the basic one of the book, which Jane Kohuth writes in a matter-of-fact narrative voice and Elizabeth Sayles illustrates in very somber tones that are quite suitable to the story. Despite the clear intent to provide uplift, this is not a pleasant story, and the attempt to find a happy ending is less than successful – although readers in the target age range may accept it. Although written so it can be handled by those readers on their own, this is a book that might better be used as a teaching tool by parents, who may want to read it – at least for the first time – with their children, and provide an explanatory gloss beyond what the book itself offers.
Religion is the foundation of Christmas, of course, but the holiday’s secular elements dominate in many households. And many families with kids ages 3-7 will enjoy My Pen Pal, Santa, for its unusual handling of the letter-to-Santa notion. The book starts with a six-year-old girl’s thank-you letter to Santa, written soon after Christmas – such an unusual occurrence, Melissa Stanton suggests, that it leads to Ava receiving a letter back from Santa himself. Ava continues writing to Santa throughout the year, and Jennifer A. Bell amusingly shows Santa’s delight and surprise when he gets letters at Valentine’s Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, and on other occasions. There are a number of amusing elements here, including one about Ava’s brother not believing in Santa, one about the Tooth Fairy’s wand working like a flashlight (“it can’t zap anyone”), and one about swimming – which Ava and her family do at the beach in summer, and Santa and his reindeer and elves do with “friendly seals, walruses and polar bears.” Eventually the next Christmas season rolls around, and Ava starts asking seasonally appropriate questions about how Santa gets down the chimney, how he delivers to homes that don’t have chimneys, and whether he makes it snow (“That’s Mother Nature’s job,” Santa writes back). Eventually Ava makes a simple, special Christmas wish that, it turns out, Santa is willing to grant, and the book ends very happily indeed. This is an unusual seasonal offering that families seeking an alternative to typical Christmas books will find attractive as the holiday draws near.