In Iran, a young Muslim girl forms a strong, affectionate bond with a Jewish family, as recounted in this illustrated children’s book based on the author’s life.
Five-year-old Maryam is a bright girl full of questions. She’s “known as the family clown for all [her] funny voices and silly faces,” and she especially loves to make her sometimes sad mother laugh. She also loves the beautiful city in the south of Iran where she grows up with her parents and three older brothers, but one day her family moves to central Iran. In Isfahan, Maryam misses her friends, and at first has only her mother to talk to. The family rents a house with kind owners, a rabbi and his wife. Maryam’s mother explains that although their religions are different, they worship the same God, and Maryam should be respectful. Maryam likes Rabbi and Mrs. Sassoness and their beautiful daughter, Shahin, immediately; they welcome her chatty visits, and Shahin treats Maryam like a little sister: “They laughed as if they belonged to one family.” This warm acceptance helps soothe Maryam’s frequently hurt pride. She goes to kindergarten but is expelled for asking too many questions. She later attends a school where she’s allowed to skip a grade. Eventually the family moves into their own home, but Rabbi Sassoness will still play a role in her future life. Omid (Mr. Nightingale, 2012, etc.) dedicates her book to the Sassonesses and intends it as “a gesture of love from one Iranian to all Jewish people around the world.” But Maryam’s interactions with the family take up very little of the narrative; her most significant encounter (the rabbi helps teenage Maryam rediscover her faith) is merely mentioned in an aside. More central is Maryam’s struggle with pride in a culture that expects women and children to be quietly deferential. When she triumphs over one of her brothers, she never lets him forget it, and that fieriness (as much as anything) captures the true spirit of this book.
A warmly inviting book, but the heroine’s rebelliousness suggests there’s more to the story.