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My Friend Jamal
McQuinn, Anna; McQuinn, Anna & Frey, Ben (illus.) My Friend Jamal . Toronto: Annick, dist. by Firefly, 2008. $17.95 hb / $8.95 pap., ISBN 978 1 55451 123 5 (hb) / 978 1 55451 122 8 (pap).

Note: A picture book story about a childhood friendship in which unfamiliar cultures meet. Playful visuals combine illustrations and photographs, and book recognizes the bond between two boys as well as sampling the differences in their lives. Different cultures. Fast friends. Jamal and Joseph were born in the same hospital in the same month...Joseph's best friend Jamal is Somali and his family has different customs and traditions from Joseph, but through their shared interests they remain close friends.

Review

This is a great little book, the first, we are told, in this Canadian publisher's new "My Friend" Series. It is very carefully thought out, beautifully and creatively produced, and reasonably priced. As the title suggests, it presents us with the friendship between two American-born boys, Joseph, of Polish descent, and Jamal, a Somali boy. They have known each other since kindergarten, are inseparable, and visit each other's homes. The story is told by Joseph, who explains that Jamal knew little English when he came to kindergarten but now gets separated from him in class for talking too much. He explains why Jamal does not eat sausage or drink milk when he visits his home, the former because he is a Muslim and the second because he has a skin allergy. Joseph also visits Jamal's home, where the family eats from a shared platter and adds banana to the pasta. At Joseph's house, they sometimes also eat ethnic food: Polish specialties prepared according to his grandmother's secret recipes.

Although most of the book subtly deals with cultural differences, it also touches on commonalities and shows Joseph and Jamal dressing up as superheroes, playing ball, and planning grand futures. Joseph sees Jamal's mother pray the salah, but also meets Jamal's young aunt who wears jeans and only covers her head when she prays. This surprises Joseph but the aunt explains that she "can still be Somali in jeans." Jamal also tells us about the war that drove Jamal's parents out of Somalia. He feels sorry that Jamal has to help his mother with her English and computer homework and can not visit his grandmother in Somalia, but envies him for his trip to relatives in London -- until he sees the present Jamal brings back.

This book does a great job of characterizing Somali cultural habits without reducing Jamal and his family to those cultural differences and it subtly shows that Joseph too has an ethnic background and cultural habits. Making Joseph the narrator, the one who explains Jamal, is an interesting choice. It works well in this book and it is likely that the "My Friend Series" will create a range of story-tellers from different backgrounds to tell about their friends.

The artwork, which constitutes most of the book, combines photographs and drawings in such a way that faces are mostly photographs while the rest of the body and the surrounding spaces are mostly drawn. It is through this creativity -- by incorporating photographs of the boy's faces into lively and fun drawings of their clothes and environment -- that this book escapes the danger of being a politically correct lesson in multiculturalism. Hopefully future volumes of the My Friend series will also find ways to steer clear from such political correctness and leave room for the mischief and naughtiness of boys and girls of this age-group. Highly recommended.

Copyright 2009 Africa Access

Rating: H Grade: P / E Type: Book

Reviewed by: Lidwien Kapteijns, Wellesley College

Subject: Somalia / Diaspora / Refugees / Immigrants