Friday, December 27, 2013

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi

Books about kids in other countries, especially picture books, are hard sells at my library. My picture book audience is all young children and many of these books are aimed at a grade school level. Since I'm looking for picture books that make good storytime read-alouds for younger children, it's hard to find something that genuinely portrays the children in a foreign culture but doesn't make it so foreign that the kids in my small town can't relate to it. I think this book manages to hit all my exacting requirements.

Lalla wants, more than anything else, a beautiful malafa. She wants one for beauty like her mother, for mystery like her sister, to be a lady like her cousin, to be like a long-ago queen like her grandmother. Finally, in the quiet of the evening, Lalla wants a malafa so she can pray like her mother. In her beautiful new malafa, Lalla knows that a malafa is all the things she thought it was and more; it's for faith.

A note from the author explains how she came to change her views on women's veils after spending a year in Mauritania. There is also a glossary for pronunciation.

Although American culture has very few rites of passage for children anymore (think about how many small girls don't need to borrow their mother's high heels anymore - they have their own) I think small children will definitely get the idea of wanting to play dress-up or borrow the pretty things their mother or older sisters wear. The unfamiliar words are clearly defined in the context of the text. There are brief references to the Koran and Muslim faith, which may bother parents who are uncomfortable with introducing their young children to a different religion (The closest Mosque to our town is at least 30 minutes away and we have maybe 3 Muslim families, so this is something kids are unlikely to be familiar with) but the religious references are very general and I think parents can easy cover it all under faith and prayer if they're not ready for a discussion of comparative religious beliefs.

The art is what really sells this for me. The malafas glow with color and pattern and swirl enchantingly around the warm and comforting extended family. In some ways this isn't just about wanting to grow up, religious beliefs or cultures; it's about the strength and relationships of the women in Lalla's family. The settings include lots of tiny details to intrigue children from bats in the trees to the houses like "tall cake".

Verdict: This is a lovely way to gently introduce young children to a different culture as well as a celebration of growing up. The art and story is accessible and this is a good selection even for a small, homogeneous community like my own.

ISBN: 9780375870347; Published 2013 by Schwartz & Wade/Random House; Review copy provided by the publisher; Added to the library

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