by Kelly Cunnane
illustrated by Hoda Hadadi
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Lalla lives in the Muslim country of Mauritania, and more than anything, she wants to wear a malafa, the colorful cloth Mauritanian women, like her mama and big sister, wear to cover their heads and clothes in public. But it is not until Lalla realizes that a malafa is not just worn to show a woman's beauty and mystery or to honor tradition—a malafa for faith—that Lalla's mother agrees to slip a long cloth as blue as the ink in the Koran over Lalla's head, under her arm, and round and round her body. Then together, they pray.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
This is a strange little book. Cute, but strange. I'm not quite sure how to review it, as I know some of my prejudices are getting in the way of me giving the book a higher rating. And yet, I can't shake a sense of unease when I read about a little girl being culturally and religiously indoctrinated.
The book takes place in Mauritania. In the author's note, the author states that she lived there from 2008 to 2009. I was not familiar with Mauritania except for one thing: I remembered that they practiced a form of force-feeding called leblouh to make the girls as fat as possible (since obesity is a status symbol in that culture). Many claim that this practice has stopped. But after a military junta took control in 2008, the practice has made a comeback, especially among poorer Mauritanians. This was not addressed at all in the story, but there are some fatter women depicted in some of the illustrations, and one particular illustration of the little girl reclining on her grandmother's lap while they have a snack takes on some rather scary new connotations.
I also wasn't sold on the whole premise of the book. When Lalla concludes that a malafa is for faith, it seems rather abstract. The book shows men and women praying (separately, of course), but there's little else that could help explain what "faith" is... or even what it means to the little girl.
The writing was fairly good, with its evocative turns of phrase. But it was also a bit strange, as it was in the second person. It tells the story of Lalla, and yet it also refers to her as "you". I'm not sure why the author chose to do this. Perhaps she thought it sounded more artsy.
The illustrations are really the best part of this book. They're simple, but bright and colourful. It looks like they're a combination of drawings and paper collage. The colours as described in the story itself come alive on the page, giving the whole book a warm and exotic feel that puts one in mind of its desert setting.
I'm not sure if I'd wholeheartedly recommend this book or not. The illustrations are worth looking at, and the poetic language of the story is lovely... but it seems to be a bit light on plot and message. Kids who take the book at face value and don't ask a lot of questions might get more out of this than more inquisitive children. If I had read this when I was younger, I probably would've had a lot of questions that even the author's note wouldn't have been able to answer.
Trees of red flowers bloom with heat.
Acadia pods rattle, and fruit bats sleep.
Grandmother sits on a cushion to brew tea,
her malafa the robe of ancient royalty.
More than all the mint leaves sold in the market,
you want a malafa so you can be like a long-ago queen too.
Recommended to: kids with an interest in other cultures
Overall: 2.67 out of 5