There are several ways to talk about this book. On its own, it's a treasure, offering a resourceful and determined heroine, an engaging story, and pictures you want to get lost in. But when you consider its context, the book becomes even more precious. This is a book for children offering a positive image of Somalis and Somali history. It gestures toward the diversity of Somali culture, invoking Arab influences in the series title ("Book One of the Wonderful Somali Nights") and Somali folklore in the story (Shabelle practices sword-fighting with a stick, imagining she's "the legendary Queen Arawelo"). The protagonist is a young woman who is rescued by her romantic interest, and also rescues him; she loves her parents, but not more than her own future. These things are rare, and we need them desperately. And by "we," I mean not just people with an obvious stake in Somali culture, but everyone.
Let me give you two horrid examples from Amazon dot com. I happened to come across another kids' book called The Leopard Princess, which do not buy it please.
According to the book description, this Leopard Princess lives "in a beautiful rainforest in mysterious Africa." Raised by leopards, she meets a guy who teaches her English and comes to know God and ok let me just stop. Now, you could say look, this thing is sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc and has no reviews, so who cares? But the point is not how much traction is gained by this particular piece of rubbish. The point is that the rubbish does not need traction. This book was produced by a dominant narrative, with a little bit of help from Laura Fairman-Powers. Her vision of the world rules, whether anyone reads her book (includes study guide!) or not.
As depressing as that is, my second example is even worse. As I prepared to write this, I did a little search for children's books involving Somalia. My search was in English (necessarily, I'm afraid) so if you have information about kids' books in Somali, please comment! My English-language search didn't turn up much, though along with the expected National-Geographic-style "This Is Somalia" ones I discovered some cool-looking bilingual picture books and retold folktales. However, I also found this:
|Murder for Kids|
Description: "Shadow Squadron hits the ground running in their first mission, operation SEA DEMON. When well-organized Somali pirates kidnap several V.I.Ps at sea, Lt. Commander Ryan Cross and his men are called upon to put these pirates down before innocent blood is shed." A reviewer comments that the author "keeps the action true to life without the gore (there is killing but it's the clean shot/clean kill variety--shoot the bad guys, they fall down)." The book is recommended for 4th- to 8th-graders. Children age 9 to 13. Nine. To. Thirteen.
I apologize for putting you through that. I feel it's necessary, though, in order to understand the importance of Hadji and Pacheco's beautiful book. Once it's out, there will probably be more critical views than mine: people may wish it had come out in Somali before English, or that it was a contemporary rather than a medieval story, or any number of other things, and that's fine. But my overwhelming impression is simple. I will buy The Leopard Princess for my kids. I wish I'd had anything close to it when I was a kid. It hurts me that I didn't.
There you go. That's my review. Invisibility hurts us. Violent representations hurt us. I thank the author and artist, and hope you'll treat yourself to their work.
|The Leopard Princess|
M.O. Hadji and Jose Lorenzo Pacheco
Coming November 2014