There was a time in college when my friends and I would gift each other Cinderella retellings and versions from all over the world, that was nearly 20 years ago, and I haven’t thought much of it, until this book reminded again of “This is the House that Jack Built.” Having just read and reviewed “The Masjid that Kamal Loves” which is structed similarly, I can confidently say forget Cinderella, I’m loving this new trend, of a repetitive layered story conveying love and excitement and joy to little readers in such an engaging way. This book has more of a story than the original and shows relationships and longing, even though it is primarily a love letter to Cairo. The swapping out in some verses for Arabic words and English translations, the sound affects and the connections really elevate the OWN voice details in the text and make the book an absolute treat to read and share even for those of us who are not Egyptian and have never visited. The Auntie who visits wears hijab, the muezzin calling Allah u Akbar is a repeated refrain, their are numerous illustrations of women in hijab and a masjid is shown repeatedly throughout allowing Muslims everywhere to feel seen with this culturally specific story. The Glossary with the Arabic script and pronunciation guides and Notes from the Author and Illustrator really radiate with love and invite the reader to participate in the celebration on the pages. I have no doubt children (and their parents) three and up everywhere will fall in love with the 40 page story and delightful illustrations.
Auntie Fatma comes to visit a little girl’s family from Egypt and brings sahlab and changes for two weeks to the home. Arabic is spoken, and a nightly lullaby of the sounds of Cairo are among the beloved additions to connect the little girl to her Auntie and her culture.
The lullaby begins with the sound of the Nile, the boats floating through the city, the athan calling to prayer, the carts on the streets, the traffic. The halawa ya battekh, swish, swoosh, swish, Allah u Akbar, beep honk toot, all add layers to the bustle of the city as the little girls memories of the sights and sounds of Egypt soothe her to sleep. When it is time for Auntie to return the little girl’s sadness is palpable, but Auntie finds a way to reassure her and all those that have drunk from the Nile and long to return.
It is hard to say if the text adds to the illustrations or the illustrations to the story, both combine to make this book impossible to read without smiling. I love that the mosque is shown in the daytime and at night implying that the call to prayer is not a one time thing without articulating that Muslims pray five times a day. I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim or if the inclusion of the athan and Allah u Akbar is just an environmental reality of Egyptian daily life and thus featured. The illustrator could have very well added the hijabs on his own as there is nothing religious or explanatory in the text. Perhaps it is worth noting that there is a dog in the family’s home that seems to sleep with the little girl. The book is a cultural heartfelt portrayal, and that Islam is prominently featured so beautifully made for a lovely surprise.
I hope you will consider preordering the book here, requesting it at your library, and sharing it on classroom and home bookshelves. Happy Reading!