Rita Jahanforuz is evidently considered “Israel’s Madonna.” However, fortunately for readers, she writes a much better picture book than our own Ms. Ciccone. (I think Madonna’s picture books are some of the worst of the celebrity-book fare. I still can’t think of 2005’s Lotsa de Casha without some painful cringing.) The Iranian-born Israeli pop singer, who goes by simply “Rita,” saw the publication in 2010 of The Girl With a Brave Heart, originally published in Hebrew but brought this March to American bookshelves by Barefoot Books—and given the sub-title “A Tale from Tehran.”
Illustrated by Vali Mintzi, who was born in Romania and studied in Jerusalem, this picture book initially hangs itself on a Cinderella-esque frame, though eventually departs freely from that. In Tehran lives a young girl named Shiraz whose mother is dead and whose father takes a new wife, also with a young daughter. The two girls initially play happily together, yet when Shiraz’s father dies, the family can no longer afford a maid and Shiraz must work.
One day after her chores are complete, Shiraz sits down on the balcony to knit, and a gust of wind carries off the ball of wool once belonging to her mother. She finds it in the yard of a neighbor and knocks loudly on the door. Suspicious eyes and a surly woman greet her. “You must do a few chores for me, jobs I cannot manage on my own,” the elderly lady tells her. “Then you will get your ball of wool back.”
The woman is unkempt, sad and aloof, and her home is just as dilapidated. But observant Shiraz notes the woman’s kind eyes. When the woman hands her a large hammer and asks Shiraz to smash everything in the kitchen (cue the wide eyes of child readers), Shiraz cleans it instead. When she asks Shiraz to pull all the dying flowers from her neglected garden, she restores and tidies it. And when she asks Shiraz to cut her long, gray hair, Shiraz gently and silently brushes it and pins it up neatly for her.
The woman then instructs Shiraz to stop on her way home at the two pools by her back gate—one with clear water and one with darker water. “Go into the clear pool first,” she tells her. “Dive underwater three times. Then bathe in the dark pool. Dive three times and no more. Then you can go back home.” Shiraz does as she’s instructed. And when she returns home, her stepmother and sister no longer recognize her. “How can you be Shiraz?” her stepsister Monir says. “You’re far too beautiful!” (The illustrator doesn’t render Shiraz here as looking radically different, but it still works. There does, indeed, seem to be more of a glow and stillness about our benevolent protagonist.)
Shiraz’s stepmother is so desperate for her own daughter to experience such a make-over that she hurls balls of wool over the balcony—nearly knocking folks over in the process—in an attempt to land one in the woman’s yard. When she succeeds, she sends Monir on her way. Instead of taking the time to sense the woman’s sorrow and tacit needs, as Shiraz had done (“I listened to her heart and I did what I thought she wanted me to do,” Shiraz later explains to her baffled family), Monir impatiently and carelessly does precisely as the woman asks: She ruins her kitchen, destroys her garden, and chops off the woman’s hair. When she returns home, she’s also barely recognizable—but this time because the pools of water render her bedraggled.
Years later, the girls, all grown up, learn the old lady’s “secret magic”: Both pools contained the same water, and they have no effect on the person submerged in them. “They just make them look the way they feel on the inside.”
As you can tell from the book’s title, this story is unapologetically didactic, yet it never comes across as heavy-handed. In the tradition of the best folk and fairy tales, it speaks to universal truths. Once an oral story, which Jahanforuz learned from her mother and then passed down to her own daughters, it is now paired with the sweeping illustrations of Mintzi, whose work is replete with beguiling lines, rich and bold colors (navy blues, mustards, lush greens and reds, and vibrant copper hues) and compelling movement. Mintzi conveys much emotion through color and line.
Jahanforuz has described this story’s message as simple: “Everyone needs the gestures of our love and affection.” In our aggressively busy world, where people often don’t take the time to listen for the words below the surface, this is a welcome thing. My graduate professor used to consistently remind us students aiming to work in school libraries: All children want to be noticed. Indeed, we never really grow out of that, do we?
A well-crafted, beautifully illustrated story of kindness and care, this is a top-notch picture book import.
THE GIRL WITH A BRAVE HEART: A TALE FROM TEHRAN. Copyright © 2010 by Rita Jahanforuz. Illustrations copyright © 2010 by Vali Mintzi. First U.S. publication by Barefoot Books, 2013. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.