I think there's a sub-species of book designed more for Social Studies teachers than storytelling, written with the quixotic hope of nudging everyone closer to world peace. Not that there's anything wrong with that, just so you're alerted there's a "just like us" message.
I got the Soviet version: look at those Russian kids waiting six hours in line for beets! They're really just like us!
And then it was the Chinese; look how they eat with sticks and wear red silk pajamas! But when not quoting Chairman Mao, they were really -- you get the idea.
Trouble is, it's too easy to patronize groups designated as "the other" rather than humanize them. The Social Studies approach can seriously backfire.
The latest group to get this "just like us" treatment is Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, and two books have crossed my desk that take completely opposite tacks in attempting to make the world a little smaller.
by Satomi Ichikawa
Mustafa's dad owns a rug shop, and when one of his wares has a hole, Mustafa gets to keep it, inventing dozens of ways to play with it. But the best fun happens when he shows off in the market; a rooster starts following him and crowing.
Before he knows it, Mustafa's befriended several tourist families, who loudly crow in their own languages: co-co-ri-co for French, qui-qui-ri-qui in Spanish, etc. Mustafa brings the foreigners to his father's shop for a lighthearted ending. Nearly everyone's typecast: Moroccans wear kaftans and fezzes, a British Dad sports khakis, three Japanese shutterbugs click away, the bazaar looks like a zillion similar depictions.
But that's okay. Nobody here's trying to shove aside stereotypes, only make light of them. And it works.
by Tricia Brown; photographs by Ken Cardwell
This peek into a real boy's life reminded me of my own brief encounters with Muslims in Turkey, Israel and elsewhere, particularly of their famed hospitality. Imran Azam's growing up in America and eager to invite everyone into his life and show how he's both a good Muslim and a great kid.
The photos depict a likeable and probably effusive boy, but it's hard to tell how much of the prose is in the boy's own voice and how much is the author's. Much of it reads like a primer on Islam rather than a biography.
I wanted to know not just that Imran dreams of being a rock star, but what's his favorite song? He has to eat dates to end his Ramadan fast -- a nice detail -- but what does he think of their taste? Does he have a favorite ethnic dish? Has he thought about what he wants to be when he grows up? Does he ever hope to visit his father's native country (which isn't named)?