World Kid Lit Review: Adult barriers and the friendships that defy them

These three illustrated books (two in translation and one originally in English) all explore a similar theme of childhood friendships against a background – or even across solid barriers – of adult hostility and mistrust.

“But friendship between children knows no barbed wire fencing: all children play games, enjoy ice-cream and feel the loss of friends.” Tulika Books, India

 

The Garden of Inside-Outside

inside outsideWritten by Chiara Mezzalama, illustrated by Régis Lejonc, translated by Sarah Ardizzone (Book Island, 2020)

Suggested age: 7+/adult

It is 1981, the early days of the Iranian Revolution. On one side of a wall, in the abandoned paradise of an Embassy compound, lives an Italian girl quite disconnected from the frightening world outside. That is, until a local boy appears over the wall – Massoud, a new friend from the outside.

This beautifully illustrated, large-format graphic novel is a remembered story from the childhood of the author, who played in that magical walled garden when her father was Italian ambassador to Iran.

With exquisitely detailed and evocative images recalling fairy tales and exploring Iran’s artistic heritage – fantasies and ideas about Iran swirling together with glimpsed experiences – this book offers an unusual and breathtaking perspective on conflict: it’s noisy and terrifying even from the safety of their diplomatic compound, so how must it feel out there on the street?

This is also a story of childhood defiance and testing barriers. It’s a timely reminder to adults that while we put up barriers to keep our children safe, they still need space to rebel, to find their own freedom and privacy.

But above all, it’s a book about the need for friendship, even when there is no common language. Chiara has her brother, but he’s not the same. Her agony is real when she worries she has scared Massoud off or insulted him by offering him a gift of her t-shirt to replace his torn one. She fears she won’t see him again. But he does brave the jump over the wall again, wearing her t-shirt, and he gives her something, a tiny cat carved out of wood. “It wasn’t a gift, it was a swap.” They couldn’t talk, they didn’t know each for long, but they had both entered each other’s lives and made a lasting impression.

“When I’m feeling unsure about anything, I hold his little cat tightly at the bottom of my pocket. I think of Massoud and then I’m brave enough to breach walls.”

The original French edition has been showered with awards and I’d agree with Read It Daddy who said, “This deserves a truckload of awards; one of the most impressive books about the many facets of war and the way it affects everyday lives, no matter what side you’re on.”

 

Mukand and Riaz

mukand-and-riaz-englishWritten and illustrated by Nina Sabnani (Tulika Books, India, 2007; also available in Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu).

Suggested age: 8+

The stunningly illustrated book is based on Sabnani’s short animated film which tells the true story of her father Mukand, who was forced by Partition to leave his hometown and his best friend Riaz. Illustrated with a combination of textiles, embroidery and appliqué -a craft tradition common to both Sindh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India – there is a wealth of emotion and unspoken expression in every page.

In this book, gifts of clothes are laden with memories, too. Riaz gives his friend Mukand a Jinnah cap so that he and his family won’t stand out as they flee from Kirachi to Bombay. As the ship sets sail, Mukand throws his beloved red baseball cap to Riaz back on the shore to remember him by.

“Mukand and Riaz never met again. But every time Mukand saw the Jinnah cap, he thought of his best friend.”

Those words bring a tear to my eyes when I imagine the hostile circumstances that made my own family leave Karachi not long after the events of this book. I had long wanted to talk to my boys about the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, the life-changing event which eventually brought my father’s family to the UK. But I’m glad I read this book to myself first before I read it to them, as I actually found it a little too upsetting initially and I wanted to wait until the right moment for a proper conversation around it.

One of my misgivings about reading it to them at their age (9 and 6) was one potentially ambiguous image which to me looks like someone being hanged. There is no blood or anything more graphic in the book, and fortunately they didn’t notice (or comment) on the image I had found especially disturbing, but if they had been troubled by it I was prepared with an explanation about the grim and violent ways people have killed each other in the past, reassuring them that mostly, where there is law and order, we don’t have such barbarity any more. Mostly. My boys often hear my pacifist rants about weapons and violence, but they rarely encounter images of such things in children’s books. And yet a book about war, and its painful, far-reaching consequences, can – for the right age group – be honest while being sensitive, and I think this brave and beautiful book manages that.

Daniel And Ismail / دانيال وإسماعيل/ דניאל ואיסמעיל  

daniel and ismailOriginally in Chilean Spanish by Juan Pablo Iglesias, illustrated by Alex Peris. Cleverly published as a trilingual text: English translation by Ilan Stavans, Hebrew by Eliezer Nowodworski and Frieda Press-Danieli, Arabic by Randa Sayegh (Restless Books, 2019)

Suggested age: 5+

Daniel and Ismail, one Jewish and the other Palestinian, live separate lives, just around the corner from each other, with more in common than they know. They share the same birthday, and they get matching presents: both are given a soccer ball and a traditional scarf, a tallit for Daniel and a keffiyeh for Ismail. Playing in the park, they make friends showing off their skills, and running home they don’t notice that they each pick up the wrong scarf. At home, their parents don’t hide their horror, filling the boys’ minds and their dreams with confusion and worry about what they’ve heard grown-ups saying. The next day they find each other and swap scarves, the awkward moment and anxiety soon passing as they get back to the important thing: their soccer match and being friends with whoever they want to be friends with.

I love the way the publisher, Restless Books, puts it: this book “confronts the very adult conflicts that kids around the world face, and shows us that different cultures, religions, societies, and languages can all share the same page.” I’ve never seen this important point made more clearly and undeniably than in this bold and cheerful picture book which places the same text in three languages equally on the page. It even reads from right to left like Arabic and Hebrew books, so the whole story is a colourful and physical expression of perceived difference and the universality that over-arches those differences.

***

For the right age group, perhaps 8+, these three books would all make excellent additions to a home-school or classroom-based discussion of friendship and cultural acceptance. It would be fun to play with the theme of clothing as a symbol of identity but also as a token of trust and memory.

Another theme these three thought-provoking books explore is that of overcoming barriers both physical and imagined, perhaps an important message of hope at a time when many around the world are stuck within the four walls of home.

 

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