When I started this picture book journey a few months ago, I knew very little about children’s literature from Iran, or Persia as it was historically known. It has been a wonderful experience finding out more.
Iran has a rich oral tradition of storytelling. In her 2009 article “Memory of a Phoenix Feather”, Niloufar Talebi writes that public storytelling predates the seventh-century C.E., and was the principal form of entertainment and community building in Iran until the twentieth century. Storytelling in various forms is still in existence today. Naghals generally perform in coffeehouses where, over a period of days or weeks, they recount episodes of a longer story, generally an epic poem. Parde-khars or Pardeh-dars are itinerant storytellers who move from one town to the next; they set up in public areas, such as squares and cemeteries with their Pardeh, a painted screen or canvas which features a series of stories. Talebi compares a third type of storytelling, the Ta’zieh, to the Western Passion Play. The article is a great starting point if you want to find out more about storytelling traditions in Iran.
Another great find were the notes to “A Thousand Years of the Persian Book” an exhibition held at the US Library of Congress in 2014. There is a wealth of stories in Persian literature dating back centuries. The epic poem the Shahnameh by Persian poet Ferdowsi was written between 977 and 1010 CE. Comprising an astonishing 50,000 rhyming couplets, it took the poet 33 years to complete. The stories now known as A Thousand and One Nights, which have origins in a number of different oral traditions, were initially recorded in Arabic in the Middle Ages; they were so popular in the Qajar era (1794-1925) in Iran that they were translated into Persian verse. Many contemporary children’s books draw on stories from these works.
One of the earliest known children’s books from Persia was a poem written in the 14th century by Ubayd Zākānī, a Persian poet and satirist, although there is some debate around this. Titled Mush u Gurbah (Mouse and Cat), it was recently published in a trilingual Persian-English-Swedish edition under the title The Mice and The Cat by Uppsala University Press.
In the 1960s Iran started to produce high quality children’s books through the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Youth – an activity which continues to flourish today. But it is only in the last few years, with the advent of publishing houses like Tiny Owl in the UK that English-speaking readers have been able to appreciate the beauty and diversity of children’s stories from classical and modern Persian literature. I had shortlisted a number of picture books for this leg of our journey, but when I visited the Tiny Owl bookstore online, I was like a child in a candy shop. The eye-catching book covers and information about each title (author interviews, book trailers, reviews) completely wowed me and I had trouble restricting myself to three! In the end, I chose a modern classic first published in 1968, a retelling of a Rumi fable, and a book by a famous contemporary Iranian poet. All were originally written in Persian and published in Iran. Here’s the detail:
The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi, illustrated by Farshid Mesghali, translated by Azita Rassi (first published in Persian in 1968 by Kanoun Parvaresh Fekri; this edition, Tiny Owl Publishing, 2017)
The Parrot and the Merchant by Marjan Vafaian, translated by Azita Rassi (first published in Persian in 2013 by Chekkeh Publisher; this edition, Tiny Owl Publishing, 2017)
When I Coloured in the World by Ahmadreza Ahmadi, illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi, translated by Azita Rassi (first published in Persian in 2010 by Nazar Publisher; this edition, Tiny Owl Publishing, 2017)
I hope you enjoy my picture book selection for Iran as much as I do.[Image: Kerman library, made available under a creative commons licence; Source: flickr.com]