While her father makes a traditional couscous dinner, Nora announces she is “staaarving”. In response, her father tells her a story of his youth in Morocco when there was very little to eat.
The Butter Man is a longer picture book set in the High Atlas Mountains where the local Berber population is dependent on the rainfall for their crops to grow. Nora’s father, Ali, recalls a period of drought: the wheat crops failed, and flour was in short supply. He recounts his love of homemade butter made with milk from the family cow. Only, times were tough and the cow had to be sold, leaving Ali with only bread to eat, and never enough to feed his hungry stomach.
Ali’s mother sends her son outside to wait for the butter man for a little butter to put on his bread. As he sits on a rock, we gain little insights into the people of Ali’s village. We hear about Fadma and Itto with kindling strapped to their backs, and Moha and Lahcen carrying clay jugs of water. And we see these characters in the accompanying illustrations.
Ali momentarily forgets about his hunger as he watches his world go by, even though the bread he takes outside is getting smaller and harder each day. Just when we wonder how he can carry on with so little to eat, we share the excitement of his father’s return with supplies from across the mountains. The couscous the family enjoy that evening really is a celebration.
In a striking parallel, Nora shares a delicious couscous with her parents, just as her father had many years before. The two mealtime illustrations have a similar family composition with parents and child gathered around a large dish of couscous, but there are marked differences. The clothing in Nora’s household is western and the backdrop plain; in the earlier illustration, traditional Berber garments are featured and the classic Arabian window grille in the backdrop adds a distinctive touch.
There are similarities and differences in the narratives too. Nora’s hunger is fleeting and quickly sated, while Ali experiences a real shortage of food. In Morocco, Ali’s father goes out to find work across the mountains; his mother prepares the meals. Fast-forward to the present and Nora’s mother has headed out to work leaving her husband to prepare couscous for the family.
The Butter Man is a story that straddles two cultures. Although Ali is far from the land of his birth, the traditions of his youth live on in his new homeland. The couscous dish is a key focus of the narrative and illustrations. And the story, both past and present, is peppered with references to Berber culture and language. Fortunately, the authors provide us with a detailed author’s note about life in the High Atlas Mountains as well as a glossary at the end.
Essakalli’s folksy illustrations in rich earthy tones capture the parched earth, dress and simple existence of the Berber villagers.
This is a well-crafted book that provides valuable insights into traditional life in the High Atlas mountains; it also offers subtle hints about how culture adapts in a new homeland. I enjoyed reading it, and both my daughters, Miss 5 and Miss 2, were fascinated by the storyline and illustrations.
The Butter Man by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou, illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli (Charlesbridge, 2008)
Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou collaborated as writers on The Butter Man. They met when Elizabeth Alalou was volunteering with the Peace Corps in southern Morocco. Ali Alalou was born in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. They are married with four children and live near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the US.
The Butter Man won the Middle East Book Award in 2009. Established by the Middle East Outreach Council (MEOC) in the US, these awards recognise books that promote a deeper understanding of Middle Eastern societies and cultures. A full list of past award winners can be found here.
Julie Klear Essakalli is a studio artist, art teacher, children’s book illustrator and co-founder & artistic director of the language education company, Zid Zid Kids. Born in Germany, she grew up in the US and is now a resident of Marrakech, Morocco. She based the illustrations of The Butter Man on a remote Berber farming village in the High Atlas mountains.