Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by P.J. Lynch

No one knows, understands or respects the African desert like Issa, who has been guiding travelers through it for many, many years.  A desert storm can begin suddenly and before long, travelers are buried in the sweeping sand.  One morning, as he was watching the sun come up, Issa realized there had been a storm, then he noticed a red ribbon with black and green embroidery on it in the desert.  Hearing a cry and looking further, Issa finds a camel guarding a small baby.

Issa took the baby and camel home.  He named the baby Mariama and raised her.  As she grew, Issa taught her everything there was to know about the desert.  Issa and Mariama were inseparable.  One day, however, Issa told Mariama that he was going blind.  She became his eyes, describing the things around them exactly as he had taught her to do: "Now we are passing the line of thorn trees that look like old women lifting their shawls over their heads."

One day, three travelers come seeking Issa's services as a guide.  They do not want to take the long way through the desert, but the shortcut through the dangerous Bitter Mountains.  They offer Issa a pouch of pearls as substantial payment for his guidance, enough to help secure Mariama's future.  As the travelers are leaving, they discover Issa is now blind and guides with the help of a young girl, they get angry and leave.

In the morning, Mariama tells Issa that the travelers are gone, crossing the mountains without a guide.  Issa decides they will go find the travelers.  They follow their tracks but by the end of the day, they have lost them.  The next day, Issa figures out where the travelers are based on Mariama's description, but soon, he realizes that a dust storm is coming and so are the three travelers.  Issa directs them all to a gap in the mountains, where they wait out the sandstorm in safety.

The next day, the three travelers visit Issa to say goodbye, when the leaders notices a gold necklace Mariama is wearing.  After she tells him that she was found as a baby wearing it, he invites them to sit so he can tell them a story that will change the lives of Issa and Mariama forever.

Yes, to those of you who have already read this lovely story, I know the ending is predictable.  But the point of Mysterious Traveler isn't the ending.  At the heart of it is the concept of family and how we define it.  Mariama calls Issa grandfather even though they are not related (she also called him Baba which I took in its ancient Persian meanings of a term of endearment, but could also mean father).  Is family only those that we are biologically related to or does it include those who loved us as if we are family?

Mysterious Traveler is an enchanting story that will certainly bring the tales of the Arabian Nights to mind, in both words and illustration.  The language is picturesque and lyrical, evoking the the sights and sounds of a long ago way of life.  Not only does it convey the gentle love between Issa and Mariama, but the language also shows the desert in all moods from calm and beautiful at sunrise, to angry and dark in a sandstorm.  

This is the kind of story that is best read aloud, just as the Arabian Nights were told.  It is perfect for classroom or bedtime reading, with its calm, gentle tone.  The story is complimented by P.J. Lynch's beautiful, soft-focus watercolor and gouache illustrations, all done in earthy, desert tones.  These are at once realistic and dreamlike.  In fact, it was Lynch's cover illustration that first drew me to Mysterious Traveler.

Then I was delighted to see it was written by Mal Peet, a favorite of mine, and his wife Elspeth Graham.  They have worked as a team before and once again, they have given us a story that we can all appreciate.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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