Book Review #2: Going to Mecca
Author: Na’ima B. Robert
Illustrator: Valentina Cavallini
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
At the Somali Literacy Project, one of our goals is to find children’s books which are culturally responsive to the literary needs of Somali children. With that said, we were delighted to find Going to Mecca, a children’s book showcasing the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca. The author, Naima B. Roberts, is a celebrated author of children and youth literature. Some of her past titles include From Somalia, with Love, She wore Red Trainers and Ramadan Moon. Roberts’ works are important, as they showcase the stories of communities which are largely absent from children’s literature.
Going to Mecca is written in an easy to follow, almost poetic prose, in which the reader is taken on a journey to fulfil the basic rites of the Hajj. Rather than having a central character and/or characters, the story invokes the reader to join the pilgrims on their Hajj. The reader, rather than rendered a mere observer, becomes a part of the story. The story begins as the pilgrims are departing their homelands for Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Throughout the story, pilgrims partake in rites which will be familiar to most Muslims including walking around the Ka’aba (the cube-shaped black building often associated with the Hajj), and climbing the Mount of ‘Arafah, to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) last sermon.
The story of Going to Mecca is one that most Somali children and their families will be able to relate to. For non-Muslim children and adults, the book is useful in introducing the Hajj and deconstructing the pillar of Islam, which can at times be challenging for non-Muslims to grasp. There is also a useful glossary included for key terms mentioned which require more clarification.
Valentina Cavallini’s illustrations are beautiful, and are successful in depicting the Hajj. Cavallini’s images capture the incredible diversity of the Muslim world, in all of their colors, socioeconomic backgrounds, creeds, abilities and ages. The inclusion of Africans is especially important, given that characters of African descent are too often missing from children’s literature. This in turn enables Somali children and families to connect more strongly with the story. Cavallini’s use of multi-media collage nicely complements Robert’s intention of making the story interactive; the almost three dimensional quality of the images truly invite you in. Resulting from the cultural familiarity and simplicity of the images, mothers can easily narrate this story to their young children in the Somali language.
As many Somali parents have experienced displacement from their homeland, parents oftentimes fear (quite legitimately so) that the cultural identities of their children are fading away in favor of the host culture du jour. Parents long to inculcate their children with strong bi-cultural identities, one which promotes children’s integration into their host society while simultaneously valuing, sustaining and promoting their Somali identities. Due to a lack of resources (e.g., children’s literature, Somali heritage language classes etc.), parents struggle with this goal. This is a challenge shared with immigrant and refugee parents throughout the country.
Islam is an intrinsic part of Somali identity; children’s literature which is inclusive of Muslim characters can serve to promote the healthy identity development of Somali children. This in turn, breeds a positive orientation to early literacy and education, which research has shown improves children’s educational experiences and achievement. We can promote a love for literature among Somali children if we give our children access to stories which mirror lived or familiar experiences. Going to Mecca does this for Somali children and their families as well as Muslim families across a very broad spectrum.
Going to Mecca would make an excellent addition to bookshelves in Somali homes and in classrooms which serve Somali children. It is a welcome and much needed addition to children’s multicultural literature.