There was a time, best beloved, when folktales and fairytales were common. Every other season they filled the publishers’ lists and librarians bought such books in droves. My own library’s children’s room contains a large and impressive folktale section, where parents can grab anything from your standard Snow White tale to perhaps a lesser known story like Anansi and the Moss-covered Rock. That particular folktale, by the way, is by one Eric A. Kimmel, a man who has spent much of his life finding and retelling classic folktales from a variety of different cultures for the American audience. Sadly, I estimate that in 2010 the number of folktales published for kids will, if we’re lucky, come to about ten. Max. And of those ten, how many will be any good? Well, at the very least you can count on Joha Makes a Wish. Adapted by the aforementioned Mr. Kimmel and illustrated by the too-little-known Omar Rayyan, Joha is one of those stories that remind you why we like folktales so much in the first place. They amuse, they inform, and they give us glimpses into cultures other than our own. In this particular case, the Middle East.
On a trip to Baghdad our hero Joha attempts to take a nap against an ancient wall. This doesn’t go so well, though, when the wall collapses behind him, revealing a stick and a scroll that proclaims, “You have found a wishing stick.” Delighted, Joha wishes for new shoes, only to find his old ones gone. A wish for the stick to disappear glues it to his hand. A wish to ride a donkey finds him carrying the animal instead. And you can pretty much guess what happens when he attempts to remove the sultan’s wart. After an encounter with a clever merchant the two realize that he’s been holding the stick upside down. Joha returns to the sultan to remove the copious warts, then finds his stick co-opted by the greedy ruler. Riding a small donkey away at the end, Joha speculates whether or not he should have told the sultan how to use the stick. In the end, it’s evident that he did not.
In his Author’s Note at the start of the book, Kimmel explains a little bit about your classic Joha tale. Joha’s a fool character, much like Jack in European tales. Kimmel ties him into a couple other characters, including Sancho Panza, suggesting that Cervantes got the idea for Sancho when he heard the Joha stories that circulated when he was in a Turkish prison. In Jewish tales, your fool character is either a schlemiel or a schlimazel. In this particular story, Joha is clearly on the schlimazel side of things. He’s a victim, until he can take charge of his problem and then foist it onto someone else. You sympathize with the guy, but at the same time there’s a certain bit of schadenfreude watching him carrying a donkey or fleeing from the authorities on foot.
Kimmel’s storytelling is at the top of his form here. I’ve little doubt that kids will get a kick out of it, should you chose to read this book in front of a group. I view most of my picture books, wondering, “will that read aloud well when I’ve a class of second graders visiting me?” My ideal readaloud picture book always has a text that can be read in an exciting manner and a fun twist ending. “Joha Makes a Wish” has every bit of that. It’s just an extra added bonus that the book also has images that are easy to see at a distance.
Now I’ve admired the art of Omar Rayyan for years, but I’ve never quite felt he’s gotten due notice. If you’ve seen his picture book work at all it may have been when he did those luscious images for John Warren Stewig’s King Midas: A Golden Tale or Teresa Bateman’s The Ring of Truth (toted out every year for our St. Patrick’s Day display). Truth be told, Rayyan has previously paired with Kimmel several times on books like Count Silvernose A Story from Italy and Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale (an Egyptian version of Snow White). Now they’re together again but with a story that is far more silly and light-hearted than some of their earlier fare. Rayyan is so good at serious situations that it’s lovely to see him really let loose with some straight up physical humor. Joha, for one, is just perfect. With his bristle brush moustache, weak chin, and oversized schnoz, this Joha looks like nothing so much as a slightly befuddled David Niven.
As a kid I was a sucker for any book with details, and as an adult I find I haven’t grown up much in this respect. I love details. They’re like little prizes that reward you if you’re a good enough reader. Rayyan is unafraid to fill his pictures with such details, a fact that may be evident if you look at the cover and notice how the pattern there cuts into his headwear in a particularly amusing fashion. After a couple read throughs I started noticing some of the other in-jokes. There’s the boy who holds the sultan’s horse near the start of the tale and who ends up holding the sultan’s rat instead at the end (trust me, this makes sense in context). Or the look Joha cuts to the reader near the end when the sultan decides to take our hero’s wishing stick for his own. Notice too what Rayyan does with his decorative flourishes. Joha might climb a picture’s surrounding border to get away from some guards, or his donkey’s bleat might come out as a particularly detailed cornerpiece. Magic too is best illustrated by what happens both in the center of a page, and along the sides. Rayyan is always keeping your eyes occupied, even when you don’t know where to look first.
Though this is the first Joha story of its kind that I’ve seen, I’ve little doubt that he’s probably the same as Goha, seen in the picture book Goha The Wise Fool by Denys Johnson-Davies. These two books would pair particularly well together, I should think. I’d also believe that on a visual level it might be fun to read this book alongside The Duchess of Whimsy by Randall de Seve. However you want to pair it or read it, Joha Makes a Wish is one of those picture books that remind you why we love folktales so much in the first place. A visual stunner coupled with a fantastic bit of storytelling, this one’s a winner. People of the world, take note.
On shelves now.
Source: Hardcover copy sent from publisher.
- Interested in seeing some of this art firsthand? Well, a few of the illustrations from the book will be featured in the Los Angleles, CA Skirball Museum’s exhibit Monsters and Miracles:A Journey Through Jewish Picture Books. The show runs between April 8th and August 1st, 2010.