BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz

Storyteller's BeadsMy recent mini-Ethiopian self-study (from the heartwarming No Biking in the House Without a Helmet to the shattering Beneath the Lion’s Gaze to the wondrous Cutting for Stone) continues with an older title written for younger readers about the saving power of friendship – as well as redemptive strength of storytelling! – in spite of unspeakably difficult hardships. Beads also makes a worthy fictional companion text for the illuminating, based-on-a-true-story, Cry of the Giraffe.

Sahay and her uncle, the last surviving members of their family, are on the run, their lives destroyed by the Red Terror – the sweeping violence led by Mengistu Haile Mariam following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Their only hope for a future lies in another country, in the refugee camps in bordering Sudan.

Along the frightening journey, Sahay and her uncle are joined by others on the run, including a young blind girl, Rahel, and her older brother. The siblings are alone, forced to abandon their parents and elderly grandmother; they are falashas, a derogatory term used for Ethiopian Jews who are long-persecuted pariahs in their own country. Rahel and her brother hope to make aliyah, to journey to their spiritual home of Israel – somewhere they’ve never been.

Sahay, long taught by misinformed adults to fear and hate the falasha, is surprised by Rahel and her brother’s kindness during their grueling escape. Her wariness dissipates as the two girls are thrown together, and their only chance of survival depends on helping one another.

Author Jane Kurtz, who grew up in a remote Ethiopian village, includes a helpful afterword at book’s end: “The true story of Rahel and Sahay’s escape,” provides clear historical context to better understand the complexity of this compelling story. Kurtz explains the overlapping history of Sahay’s and Rahel’s peoples, their common cultural and ethnic roots, the brutal religious persecutions, and the Israeli government’s secret missions which rescued some 45,000 Ethiopian Jews before the overthrow of Mengistu’s junta government in 1989.

For younger readers, Beads is a wise introduction to a horrific tragedy in Ethiopia; meanwhile, the growing list of eye-opening titles are undoubtedly creating a portal to greater global understanding, Start now … we still have so much to learn … and change!

Tidbit: Check out author Jane Kurtz’s amazing book project, Ethiopia Reads, with the goal to “create a reading culture in Ethiopia by connecting children with books” … especially love the part about “creating culturally appropriate reading materials”! Stories that reflect the readers’ experiences will go a long way toward encouraging and developing eager readers for years and decades to come!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 1998


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