It is a bit tricky to review a choose-your-own-adventure style book, as each story twists and turns and leaves the reader with a different ending and thus, a different impression. I tried to explore every story line in a book that I had little expectation of, it is an intentionally splintered story after all, but even at that, this fell really short. The core of the story: a Muslim and Jewish boy in Cordoba, Spain in 1080 exploring real facts in a fictionalized story about hunting down a missing astrolabe, really had a lot of potential, unfortunately the tiny size (maybe 3.5 x 5.5 inches) and only being 76 pages, the frightening cover, and the misprinted footnote glossy right at the start, set the tone for a weak forgettable book, and by the time you get to the actual story and plot, you really have very little substance to change your mind.
Two nine-year-old boys start off the story chasing after their donkey who has run off and sent their oranges spilling over all around the square. They should clean up the chaos, but they remember that they are supposed to meet Zarkali, the greatest astronomer in all of Spain, as he finally has a job for them after months of waiting. His latest work is a brilliant astrolabe, but when they get to his workshop he isn’t there. When he finally arrives with his assistant Aleho they are frantic as the astrolabe, the Saphea, is missing. The boys were to be asked to help transport it, as they would blend in unnoticed, but now that it is missing what should they do? Should they search for it? Investigate if it was stolen? Accept their punishment for the mess with the oranges and their donkey? Let the first choice of many begin the adventure.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love the author’s knowledge about Muslim Spain and how she tries to introduce it to children perhaps unaware of the rich history. The inside illustrations are wonderful, the cover truly misleads readers, and naturally I wish the book was larger in size and longer in length. The foundation of the story, the getting to know the characters and their world, needs to be longer. The story should be established before you have to make decisions. It is historical fiction, but needs the world building attention that a fantasy book would require, and this book just doesn’t have it. As a result the choices and endings, are all over the place, not just twists in the stories, but huge changes. Some of the paths no longer focus on the astrolabe that is missing, and seem to offer both threads of something far more sinister at play and choices that keep the boys lives mundane. The book counts on the reader re-reading the tale and making different choices, otherwise your interaction with the book could truly be over in nine pages, nine tiny pages at that. And like I said above regarding the cover and size, they don’t entice one to pick it up and read, then if your adventure is only a few pages long, and you already notice the repeated definition on pages 4 and 6 (before any choices are offered), chances are you won’t revisit the book, learn about real people, marvel at scientific discoveries, travel the region, appreciate interfaith harmony, and get swept up in a historically fictionalized tale that puts you in the drivers seat.
Fine for middle grades and up.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I highly doubt the book would even be looked at on a classroom library shelf, I have been trying for days to get my own children to read the book: they love to read, they love history, they love books with options, but they have yet to open the front cover.