I’ll admit it; the cover of The Storyteller drew me in. A striking combination of royal blue and gold, it really stands out from the bookshelf. And the many illustrations throughout the book do not disappoint. Each page bursts with colour and activity like a vibrant tapestry of life in the desert kingdom.
This book is set in Morocco in a time of drought. A young boy goes looking for water to fill his cup. He finds an old man perched on the edge of a dried-up fountain who reassures him that his thirst will be quenched, and starts to tell him a story. Not just one story, but a series of stories – and stories nested within those stories. The Storyteller is a very apt title.
At the end of each instalment, the young boy discovers his cup is full of water. He then takes the same stories to the people and, together, they succeed in thwarting the sandstorm djinn (genie) who is threatening the kingdom. How? As they listen to the boy, the people’s drinking cups are filled with water and eventually fountains start to flow all over the city.
Storytelling and water are closely intertwined in this magical tale. The fountains are dry, yes, but that’s purely surface level. The author presents traditional storytelling as a life-affirming art: by ensuring its remaining masters pass on their skills and stories to the next generation, people are saved from a barren existence – the water of life starts to flow again. In his author’s note, Turk states that he is sharing the beauty and magic of storytelling with us for a reason. Traditional public storytellers, hlaykia, are dying out as people in Morocco turn towards new media.
Carpet weaving, another dying art, is also a key feature in the old storyteller’s tales. The Glorious Blue Water Bird, woven from shimmering blue yarn, always finds water for its host family even when the land is parched. And we learn that, many generations before, the same yarn had been woven into a carpet that transformed into a pool of water to slake a princess’ thirst.
The language used throughout the book, as well as the stories, transports us back to another time. Take the beautiful simplicity of the similes: The kingdom of Morocco formed “like a pearl around a grain of sand”, and “The old man’s voice rumbled like a spring from deep within the earth.” But, the story is also timeless. It is like a myth or fairy tale that becomes engraved in the collective memory.
My one initial reservation about The Storyteller was the story-within-a-story format. On my first reading, I found the multiple layers difficult to follow despite the different coloured text used to distinguish them. Then one evening, I read the story aloud to Miss 2 and Miss 5 – and it came alive! So my verdict: Don’t keep this book to yourself; read it with others, share its message, tell its story.
The Storyteller by Evan Turk (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016)
Evan Turk is an illustrator, animator and designer based in New York City. The Storyteller is his debut as an author/illustrator. He is an Ezra Keats New Illustrator Honor winner and has collaborated on a number of picture books, including the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus.
This article provides fascinating details about Turk’s in-country research for The Storyteller, including the indigo painting process.