Written and Illustrated by Jeannie Baker
Candlewick Press, 2010, 48 pp.
This picture book from the award-winning Australian illustrator and author, Jeannie Baker, is receiving universal praise and excellent reviews as visually stunning, spectacular, original, timely and timeless with its thoughtful message of global diversity and interdependence. The content, design, and illustrations interweave to create a powerful statement about the ways in which our lives mirror each other across diverse cultural contexts and ways of living. This exemplary picture book is sure to receive multiple awards and recognition, but it also raises questions about whether we evaluate a book only as an individual piece of literature or also consider the broader sociopolitical context of images about particular parts of the world. The issue of representation is one that complicates the author’s intent and the place of this book within the field of children’s literature.
The clever design of the book immediately captures the reader’s attention in opening the cover to find two side-by-side wordless books, one to be read from left to right and the other from right to left. The foldout format allows both stories to be viewed simultaneously so that the stories provide a mirror for each other as the reader follows the lives of two boys and their families on a day of shopping, one in rural Morocco and the other in Sydney, Australia. A bilingual introduction in English and Arabic notes that the boys’ lives are different and yet similar, and leads the reader into parallel illustrations showing both boys looking out their windows at the same moon, one in a big city and the other in a remote village. Themes of family life and global interdependence weave through the stories of father-son outings, one by car to a hardware store and the other by donkey to a marketplace. The differences in their lives are visually evident in the comparisons of a crowded modern city filled with traffic and stores alongside the unpopulated mountains and deserts filled with sand and camels. The interdependence is clear as one looks closer, noticing the cell phone in the rural marketplace and the man in a turban and a woman in a hijab at a store in Sydney. This interdependence becomes the focal point as the story ends with the Australian family sitting on the handmade rug that was sold by the Moroccan father in the marketplace and purchased in a store in Sydney, while the Moroccan boy sets up his new computer, purchased with the profits from the rug.
Baker has woven such rich details of the boys’ lives within and across these two cultures that readers will keep coming back to discover something new each time they open the book. Comparisons of family life, clothing, meals, shopping, and communities are evident in the illustrations of the boys’ lives as well as the broader comparisons of the landscapes, cities, and villages. Differences in culture, environment and lifestyle are highlighted in order to allow the reader to also see the connections and similarities across their lives. Baker has clearly worked hard to create a thoughtful comparison of life in two cultures, avoiding exoticism or the valuing of one way of life over the other and making evident the ways in which both cultures influence the other.
The stories are told through richly detailed collage illustrations that are visually stunning in color and texture. Baker says that she began the illustrations as drawings and then constructed them layer upon layer on a wooden baseboard using natural and artificial materials, including sand, earth, paints, vegetation, paper, fabric, wool, tin and plastic. She preserved the natural materials and then added fresh coloring. The illustrations have attracted a great deal of attention and are touring as an exhibition throughout Australia in various art museums.
Baker is well known and respected for her beautifully illustrated collage picture books that convey strong environmental themes, such as Belonging (2007), Home (2004), Window (2002), The Story of Rosy Dock (1995) and Where the Forest Meets the Sea (1988). She states that the idea of this book came from her travels in countries and cultures that differ from her own. At a time of strong negative rhetoric in Australia about “illegal” immigrants and antagonism toward anyone or anything viewed as “foreign,” she was struck by the friendliness and generosity that she experienced in traveling alone in rural Morocco. This experience led her to the theme of this book, “that outward appearances may be very different but the inner person of a ‘stranger’ may not be a stranger at all. We all live to be loved by family and friends and to be part of a larger family, a community. Inwardly we are all so alike that it could be each other we see when we look in a mirror.” She sees the book as a celebration of differences and diversities and as a glimpse into the common humanity that connects us so that “we are the mirror of each other” (http://www.jeanniebaker.com/).
Often, when authors and illustrators are outsiders to the cultures in their books, reviewers raise concerns about cultural authenticity and question the depiction of the values and beliefs of that culture or the accuracy of the details of daily life. Authenticity, however, does not appear to be a concern with this book. The details of rural life in Morocco seem carefully researched and the author clearly brings an attitude of respect toward traditional lifestyles in Morocco. The only problematic stereotype is that the Australian family buys the carpet from a Magic Carpet store and the Australian boy draws flying carpets for his family. The connection of flying carpets with Arabic culture has been so overdone that it has become offensive in much the same way as the sombrero has become resented as a symbol of the “lazy” Mexican.
The issue in this book is not cultural authenticity, but representation, particularly the author’s decision to contrast rural isolated Morocco with modern urban Australia. The reality of our modern world is that countries are not equal in their economic and political positions of power. These differences matter and lead to inequities in the global marketplace and in lifestyles and opportunities. There is a hierarchy of power and oppression across countries within the global world and Australia is much higher on that hierarchy than Morocco. Given the global power differences, the comparison of rural traditional Morocco with modern urban Sydney is an unfair comparison that perpetuates stereotypes, despite the author’s thoughtful intentions. A comparison of two rural communities or two urban cities in both countries would have been a more fair comparison of similarities and differences or a rural Australian outback community could have been compared with a modern Moroccan city to challenge viewers to confront their stereotypes of both cultures.
By emphasizing the message that we are all alike on the inside, the danger exists that we overlook the deeper ideologies that affect the distribution of power in society. A message of racial and global harmony is important in a world characterized by intolerance and fear of anything or anyone viewed as “foreign.” The focus on harmony through cultural awareness and sensitivity, however, should not come at the expense of also recognizing the inequitable issues of power in society. That message is missing from this book.
Another issue is the place of this book within the broader collection of children’s picture books that are set in North Africa and the Middle East. A survey of books from these regions indicates the overwhelming depiction of rural isolated villages with lots of camels and sand (Aziz, 2009). Over and over, children in Western cultures see depictions of this part of the world as set back in time with few modern conveniences. Although there are rural remote villages in this part of the world, there are also modern cities with large stores, cars, trucks, and the latest technology. The problem is the almost total absence of modern city life from picture books set in this part of the world. The issue is not cultural authenticity, because the rural isolated villages exist, but the lack of diversity in the representations and images of life and geographical settings in North Africa and the Middle East. The few books that do show cities in this part of the world often contain problematic images; for example, Ted Lewin’s illustrations in The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Florence H. Parry, 1995) depict camels on the streets of Cairo, when in actuality the streets are filled with fast-moving cars and trucks. If children’s books contained a broad representation of many ways of life within this part of the world, this book would be an exemplary addition to those representations. Instead this book adds to a limited representation that establishes misleading stereotypes for children as readers and as global citizens.
This book has caused a great deal of conflict for me as a reader and a critic. As an individual piece of literature, I consider the book exemplary in design and illustrations with a heart-warming and thoughtful message of global interdependence. The complexity of the details woven into the illustrations and design all point to an aesthetic masterpiece. On the other hand, books do not stand alone and we cannot act as if children’s literature is not political. When considered within the broader collection of children’s books on this part of the world, this book is a problematic representation that raises questions about the responsibility of authors to explore how their individual creations fit within images available to children.
Normally, when a book is problematic in its representation, it can be read alongside other books in a text set so that children can make their own connections and critiques. In this case, the lack of picture books showing modern city life in Arabic countries makes this pairing difficult. An alternative would be to find internet images of cities within Morocco or to search out informational books to find those images. Another possibility is to pair it with a book, such as A Country Far Away (Nigel Gray, 1999), which compares a day in the life of a child in rural Africa with a child in a Western city, so that readers can identify the pattern of portraying Western culture as urban and modern and Africa as rural and dated. The book could also be paired with the novel City Boy (Jan Michael, 2009) about a boy who is taken by his aunt to live in a rural Malawi village, leaving behind his computer, his private school and the comforts of city life. This story portrays both modern city life and more traditional village life within the same African country.
The intent of Mirror is clearly one of respect for traditional ways of life within rural Morocco as well as the ways in which all peoples are globally connected. Unintentionally, however, an unfair comparison is created that does not challenge existing stereotypes and does not consider these representations in relation to the political structures of society and the broader body of children’s books. The book raises provocative questions about our responsibilities as authors, critics, and teachers to be critical readers of both the world and the word.
Aziz, Seemi (2009). A Critical Content Analysis of Postcolonial Texts: Representations of Muslims in Adolescent and Children’s Literature. Unpublished dissertation, University of Arizona.
Kathy G. Short
University of Arizona