Picture Books

‘Rising to the Top’ and ‘Eid’ from Nabeeha Mohaidly: Surprise and Heartbreak

ArabKidLitNow recommends Rising to the Top and Eid from Dar al-Hadaek:

By Nashwa Gowanlock

Nabeeha Mohaidly’s stories, published by Al Hadaek Group, are touching and thought-proving texts with attractive illustrations that are sure to be revisited and reflected on by child and grown-up alike.

Two of her books — Rising to the Top and Eid — are strong contenders for translation, both compelling tales coupled with lively illustrations guaranteed to appeal to readers from around the world, as well as being distinctly placed in the culture of the Middle East.

Rising to the Top is a charming story with a warm ending that delivers a positive message. A group of children living in the valley are bored. Bored of their village and bored of their games. Tug of war, throwing stones and timing their echoing cries is not enough to keep them entertained anymore. One day their ‘ideas guy’ comes up with a plan for them to brave the journey up the hill to where the young people who live there are surely having much more fun, what with all those reflective mirrors and bikes to play with. After an arduous climb, they discover a children’s paradise of new ‘toys’ to play but are oblivious to the fact that they have been tampering with reflective sheets that had been specifically placed to reflect the sunlight onto their own village, which has now been plunged into darkness.

Despite their greatest efforts, they are unable to return the equipment to the correct positions but are rescued by the young locals who know how to return everything to the way it was. Just before the valley kids begin their disappointed journey home, heads hanging in shame, the mountain children beg them to stay so they can show them how to use the equipment, in return for being able to go down to the valley themselves to play with their games that they have been coveting all the while from up above. Unable to believe their luck, the two groups of children agree and are soon swapping locations and games on a regular basis. The story ends with another group of children from another town further away looking up at the hill and wondering whether there is anything new for them to play.

Two more of Mohaidly’s books have strong points, but also flaws:

Eid is a surprising story about loss from the perspective of a pre-schooler who is struggling to comprehend the concept of the religious holiday. As everyone around her celebrates the “coming” of Eid, Maha wonders who this Eid character might be. He’s not any of the relatives who come to their house that day but, she is told, he has been amongst them since the morning. Later she would try to picture Eid as long, then short, then flying like a bird and another time a ghost laughing. One day a conflict raging in neighbouring towns edges closer towards their own and the traditions she has come to associate with Eid – the smell of the special Eid pastries from the bakery, the constant stream of visitors, the new clothes and the sequined shoes – are gone. It is only through this absence that Maha finally grasps what Eid is.

This heartbreaking yet unsentimental final twist concluding a delicately narrated story of wonder and gratitude is coupled with exquisitely detailed illustrations by Raouf Al Karaay. It would be an evergreen choice for a publisher wishing to diversify their children’s literature collection since it ties in well with religious education curriculums but also provides a deeper insight into this Muslim festival.

Two more of Mohaidly’s books have strong points, but also flaws:

The Writer opens with a sequence showing a writer processing a number of ideas for a new story he is writing. Though the content might initially seem targeted at a slightly older age group than the picture book would suggest, the plot then becomes a lot more playful as the writer concocts a lovable feline character as his protagonist. He imagines a brown and black cat with a stump for a tail and tiny ears who gets into a scrape as the writer looks on, recording everything he sees, until the cat eventually overcomes his challenge and the writer can conclude his story. But the story is not over for the cat, who returns to the writer to bid him farewell, causing the writer to then look for his beloved new friend wherever he goes. The story ends with an open question to leave readers wondering if they will ever meet again. This is a tender story although the grown-up narration of a professional writer is perhaps a little high-brow for younger children, especially since the reader is not given any actual details of the scrapes the cat in the story gets into, nor how he managed to overcome them. Walid Taher’s illustrations perfectly express the symbiotic relationship between the two characters and the various events that intercept them.

In My Roving Dreams, with Hassan Zahreddin’s illustrations, a little girl lists the various professions she used to aspire to, all of them roving in one way or another: the candy floss seller and seller of other delicious treats, the man who travels around on a mule to sell kerosene, the man on the lookout for valuable scrap and junk and a brass polisher. Each profession occupies a page of descriptive text and illustration that would appeal to the nostalgic reader who longs to record society’s ever-changing landscape. In an apparent lament, the girl notes how she never entered any of these idolized professions in the end. However, the reader then discovers that she became a painter, using her art to convey the others instead. Though the ending seems to slip slightly from its mark, it is nevertheless a poignant reflection on the role of art in recording elements of a fleeting heritage.

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