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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Camel in the Sun, written by Griffin Ondaatje and illustrated by Linda Wolfsgruber. Groundwood Books, 2013. $17.95 ages 5 and up

"The old camel carried large bundles filled with spices, dates, incense, silk, silver and wool. Before each journey, its owner would make it kneel so he could climb on its back and settle on top of all the bundles. Then the camel would stand and start to walk. The camel climbed the steep sand dunes and walked along the tops of them and then lumbered down the other side, almost tumbling over..."

Too often today we forget to walk in another's shoes. We are so wrapped up in how busy we are, and how burdened we are by daily life that we forget to stop and see what life is like for others who share our place in this world.

In this quiet, well-told tale, the author encourages his readers to think seriously about the plight of the camel that is one of its main characters. This camel is nameless; but, it does not lack feelings or spirit. Its owner is cruel and unfeeling in his dealings with his beast of burden, working it continually and often without rest. The camel has been doing its job for many years. Now, it is tired and sad to find itself in a neverending cycle of work, work, work.

Its owner, Halim, has his own worries and rarely thinks beyond the needs of his day. He is also busy with the expectations made of him. He is lonely, too...always travelling to the next place to sell his wares as quickly as he possibly can. It is no excuse for his obvious mistreatment of the camel. Always hungry and very thirsty, the camel must rest in the sun while his master sleeps in the shade.
When the Prophet becomes aware of his plight, he offers a 'shoulder to cry on' and a solution to the problem. In a dream, the Prophet shows Halim the error of his ways, the sadness that is a daily part of his camel's life. Finally recognizing what has happened, Halim has a change of heart. Life improves immeasurably.

Mr. Ondaatje's tale has its origins in a Muslim hadith, as he explains in an author's note:

"When I first heard it, I didn't know that the story came from a hadith - an account of the Prophet's words or actions passed from generation to generation. It was while reading a booklet entitled Animal Welfare in Islamic Law that I recognized the storyline in a translation attributed to Abu Dawud's collection of hadith. It described a similar encounter in a garden: the Prophet discovers an overworked and starving camel and immediately instructs its owner to care for it properly. The message was direct and clear."

So, too, is Griffin Ondaatje's tale for young readers. Told in a simple language that allows them access to thinking about compassion and their own treatment of others, it feels very real and honest. Can they think of a time when they might have been kinder? Can we?

You can almost feel the desert heat emanating from the book's cover. The sandy dunes and the brilliance of the sun are enough to make me go looking for shade even on this cold, winter day in Manitoba. The setting is so clearly designed using monoprints, with drawings. They certainly evoke the energy-sapping heat and loneliness of the landscape.  Only at night does the reader have any sense of a cool that might offer some relief. Mixing tones of brown, gold, orange and green Linda Wolfsgruber helps the reader understand the pain that is felt with every trip up one side and down the other side of the next, and then the next, sandy obstacle.

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