I have a vague memory of being told that this book features a Muslim family when I reviewed the author’s first book, but I can’t find the message, nor recall who sent it and to where. The text does not suggest any religion by any of the characters, but that being said there are “Islamic” names present in this 195 page middle grades book by a Muslim author and set in Serendib, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka. The fast paced story pulls you in and sets three kids up for adventure, overcoming fears, outsmarting adults, and becoming heroes along the way. I didn’t love this book as much as The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, but it probably isn’t fair to compare them. The book was released last year in the UK and will release shortly here in the US, I don’t know that I would rush out to purchase it, but I would definitely put it on hold at the library. It is an adventure filled read from a boy protagonist perspective, it starts with a mutiny, features treasure, plotting, close encounters with a whale, and bringing justice to murderers and thieves.
Zheng has never had much of a family, and when his Captain’s First Mate and the cook poison their merchant ship crew and leave them to die, Zheng escapes. He washes up on the shore of Serendib, not far from Galle, and is found by local fisherboy Razi. Razi is a fisherboy that doesn’t fish, or rather no longer fishes, not since his father was killed by the sea. Razi just tries to help get Zheng some food and get him out of the sun, but when Marco and Cook question him about the whereabouts of Zheng, he protects the boy and gets himself involved. Promising not to tell anyone about Zheng, he immediately tells his twin sister Shifa. Shifa is the rational one int he group and doubts Zheng’s adventure stories. Her quick thinking and clever sneakiness provides time-and-time again in the book, a chance for the three kids to rescue each other, find the treasure, and return it.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the book is so fast past and unapologetic. The descriptions of the island, and the plants and sea life, really is impressive and insightful into a country and culture not often explored in children’s books. My mommy heart did not like that the kids would just leave for days at a time, and they never even thought that she might be worried, spoiler, she was!
I like how subtly the grief and loss of the father manifested in Razi. How he had to reconcile his emotions and start to move forward. It isn’t in your face, but I would imagine that any child who has gone through something similar, would be reassured by seeing a fictional character experiencing something similar. It is reinforced by Zheng’s lack of family and his need to find a “home.”
I felt like a few plot holes were too quickly glossed over in the heat of action. I don’t know that it is a result of carelessness, I think it was more to keep the story fast moving and appropriate for the target audience, but I could have used a little filling in of the gaps: the ease of pulling people in to boats, where Zheng was going at the end and how it was all figured out, how Cook and Marco found Zheng, how everyone in Galle immediately recognized the dagger, why the kids were never killed even though numerous people were drugged at the beginning without a second thought, what the praise was for the returning of the dagger, what the oxen cart owner’s response was to the damaged cart, etc..
I wish there would have been a prayer to Allah swt at some point, or a bismillah, or an Assalamualaikum. The sister’s name, Shifa, and the medicine man that she trains under, Abdul Cader, imply a tinge of Islam, but I would have liked a tiny bit more, the book sets itself for lots to be sprinkled in, the children nearly die multiple times, but it was never there.
Death, lying, sneaking, near death experiences, grief, loss, theft.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This would be a fun elementary read-a-loud with the short chapters and fast paced action.