By Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard. Wisdom Tales, 2014. 32 pages. $16.95/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 4–8.Buy on FJ Amazon Store
A couple of fairly innocent accidents land young Samuel in trouble with Hamza, the tax collector’s son. Because Samuel’s father is the grand vizier in Granada, a job that puts him much higher on the social ladder, Hamza assumes Samuel’s apology is insincere. He replies rudely. Overhearing, Samuel’s father orders his son to see that Hamza never says another mean word to him.
Samuel thinks hard about how to accomplish this mission without his powerful father’s help. One by one, his strategies fail as the boys unexpectedly develop a friendship. Samuel worries about his father’s reaction to his seeming failure until the vizier points out that he has actually succeeded.
The author’s lengthy endnote reveals that she patterned her story very loosely on an event in the life of the Jewish poet and statesman Samuel HaNagid, who attained the office of royal advisor in the days when three religions coexisted productively in Spain. His work as the commander of a Muslim army was unusual for a Jewish man in that place and time.
The combination of traditional folktale format with surprising plot twists makes this a winning book with unforced relevance in our times. The story itself does not make explicit the boys’ religious backgrounds, but subtle differences in their clothing may point to their roots in different communities. Durga Yael Bernhard’s lively, tradition-inspired illustrations would be easily taken in if the book were read aloud to a First-day school group of early elementary students.