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ISBN: 0807592013 (ISBN13: 9780807592014)
Illustrated by Carol Liddiment
Published March 1, 2012 by Albert Whitman & Co
Disguised in servant’s clothes, an Afghani shah slips out of his palace to learn more about his people. When he encounters a poor Jewish shoemaker full of faith that everything will turn out just as it should, the shah grows curious. Vowing that no harm will befall the poor man, he decides to test that faith, only to find that the shoemaker’s cheerful optimism cannot be shaken. But the biggest challenge of the poor man’s life is yet to come! Ann Stampler’s retelling of this classic Afghani Jewish folktale is enriched by Carol Liddiment’s charming and vivid paintings.
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The Afghani setting is reflected through the warm, earth tones and through the intricate patterns on rugs, clothing, and wall hangings in the background of the richly painted spreads. Despite the man’s hardships, the simple yet elegant prose reinforces his optimistic refrain that “everything turns out just as it should.” The lush, detailed backgrounds of the spreads bring to life the various settings, such as the marketplace where the man mends shoes and the shah’s palace. Religious devotion is a theme throughout the story, but readers will be most drawn to the protagonist’s cleverness rather than his piety.
As a comprehensive author’s note explains, the clothing and cultural traditions of the characters are historically accurate. Ideal for those looking to add ethnic diversity to their folktale collections.
—Mahnaz Dar, formerly at Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
Each time, though, the former shoemaker succeeds in finding new work as a water carrier, woodcutter and royal guard. When, as a guard, the young Jew is made royal executioner and must cut off the head of a thief, both faith and wit save the day, and the shah finally understands the Jew’s true ability to wisely carve out his path in life. Detailed, gently humorous paintings reflect the colorful richness of the Afghani traditional rugs, robes and turbans set against sandy mountainous backdrops. This tale of perseverance and confidence is told with well-researched authenticity and offers a positive view of this war-torn nation.
(author’s note) (Folktale. 5-8)
First he outlaws shoe repair, then he prohibits water peddling (the resourceful man’s second employ), and finally he forces him to act as palace executioner. Because we’re told from the start that the ruler is a “good shah” and that he “would let no harm befall the poor man,” readers can be fairly certain that, even as the stakes escalate, no one’s head will roll. (Stampler’s author’s note discusses versions in which the power-wielding figure is less benevolent.)
Liddiment’s rich-hued paintings highlight the characters’ goodheartedness while carefully incorporating many culture-specific details and motifs; the vibrant patterns and lush costumes play well against the desert backdrop. At the end of the story, everything has turned out “just as it should” for the shah, who gains wise council from the man, and for the former shoemaker himself, whose faith and ingenuity remain steadfast.
It’s an intriguingly prickly story with an august lineage and comic climax worthy of Jack Benny or Mel Brooks. But this telling feels as if it’s been smoothed over to a fault, perhaps in the interest of ecumenical harmony. The two characters are merely pleasant narrative devices, and Liddiment’s (How Many Donkeys?) illustrations, while admirably evoking the aesthetic traditions of Islamic culture, have little dramatic tension. Still, it’s not a total miss. Stampler’s (The Rooster Prince of Breslov) storytelling has an assured, old-fashioned sense of pacing, with just the right amount of detail to draw readers in.
Ages 5–8. Agent: Brenda Bowen, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Illustrator’s agent: The Organisation. (Mar.)