Friday, November 13, 2009

Picture books by Idries Shah


I...don't get it.

Nope, still lost.

Okay, I normally don't read other reviews of a book until after I have written mine, to make sure my review is all mine. This time, though, I had to wonder if maybe there was some sort of cultural barrier, so I googled. Oh, my! What a spate of controversy surrounding Mr. Shah and eastern religion and whether anyone was really directly descended from anyone else and a whole lot of other things I am not interested in getting into for a picture book review!

So, I'll just concentrate on the books themselves, and go back to my first comment: huh? I mean, I understood the stories - they are very simple. I understood the morals - they are often literally spelled out for you. I just didn't see how the moral matched the story. Or how the story was actually supposed to teach anything. It's like hearing someone say, "Yesterday, it rained, and I splashed in puddles," to which you are supposed to nod sagely and say something like, "yes, water makes wetness," and this will somehow cause you to be a more enlightened person.

Let's take "The Boy Without a Name", for example. When the young man is born, a wise man tells his parents he is very important, and they must not give him a name, they must wait for him to do it at a later date. They agree without question, calling him "Nameless" (which to me would be a name, but, whatever.) One day he asks a friend for his name, but the friend doesn't want to give it up for nothing. Nameless (see? He capitalizes it - it's a name!) says he has a dream he can give away, and they run to the wise man, who lets Nameless pick a name from a box, and both of them pick a dream from another box and then everybody is happy. The end.

I just have to say one more time...HUH??? So, what was so important about the kid? What is so special about the name? Why make him and his parents wait if he's just going to pick one from a box? What's up with the friend and the dreams, which we never learn anything about? The jacket cover says it teaches kids about patience and tenacity, but I just don't see that happening. We received this whole set free from Hoopoe Press, and I hate to criticize the entire collection, but - I just can't recommend these to anyone. Since we have them, we will go ahead and put them out for circulation, in the hopes that maybe it is just me and my western brain not 'getting it'. If anyone has a different experience or take on the books, we would love to hear it!


  1. Part of the problem is expectation. In the West we have been trained to expect a big emotional kick or resolution from the story--Bambi's mother get's shot, the evil witch dies a horrible death, suspense elements are ratcheted up as much as possible.

    By contrast these stories have more gentle impacts, but to a child who has not been trained yet they can be very engaging.

    Instead of clearly defined morals we have themes and elements.
    The Lion story, for example, allows a child to explore and think about fear, misunderstandings and how these interact. The story also provides a child the opportunity to experience different viewpoints: the Lion's, the other animals', the child's own viewpoint: he/she knows what the Lion doesn't and what animals don't and can see how this creates a situation.

    Many times children are told "there's nothing to be afraid of" when they are being cajoled into swimming or something unfamiliar. But fear is a visceral and real response for a child. Like the Lion who does not believe the butterfly's reassurance.

    I enabled my own daughter to get past her fear of swimming by allowing her to splash the adults with little spoonfuls of water from a water fountain. As she did this, laughing in delight at our mock spluttering, we slowly backed closer and closer to the water. It was necessary for her to enter the water in order to continue the game--just like the Lion's thirst.

    This is just scratching the surface of the simplest story in the list...

  2. I agree that the boy without a name is less "understandable" as far as it's point or purpose and yet it was also the favourite with my children. The story has a dreamy quality throughout. Dreams, apparent reality, cause and effect, and fantasy all interact.

    Near the beginning there is an illustration of "nameless" sitting disconsolately, while behind him are children playing in his neighborhood--clearly a Middle Eastern one with interlocking houses and alleys and public squares--calling each other's name, parents calling children home, a neighbor calling his friend from outside, others hearing their name being called. All of this is brilliantly portrayed by the illustrator without a single word. You, the adult, can tell by looking at expresions, eye direction, reactions, movement, that this is what is going on. For children who have difficulties reading social situations this is fabulous page to show them to introduce non-verbal cues. "Why is nameless sad? What are the other's doing. What are they saying? Why are they happy?"