A children's book teaches about the power of food to both divide and bridge cultural gaps. But it would be nothing if not for its wonderful illustrations, which coax the story's message out into open
"It all began with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," say the authors of children's book "The Sandwich Swap," "and ended with hummus."
Their story is about two close friends, Salma and Lily, who like each other very much but tend to eat very different things. Salma is disturbed by the sight of the peanut butter and jelly Lily brings to school, while Lily is repelled by Salma's hummus on pita.
The eating difference deteriorates into a struggle joined by the rest of the school children. In the end Salma and Lily are introduced to the other's customary foods and learn to like them. They instigate a "sandwich swap" party to which everyone brings their favorite food.
This fable, which clearly and openly touches on the importance of learning about others; the hidden potential in a multi-cultural society; and the ability to neutralize hostility and suspicion through friendship, reached the New York Times bestseller list last month.
This did not occur only because of the unique mix of hummus and peanut butter, but rather, it seems safe to say, because of the pedigree of one of the authors, Jordanian Queen Rania al Abdullah. (Writer Kelly DiPucchio is credited as a co-author on the cover of the book, but remains in the queenly shadow. )
Queen Rania has been invited in recent months by Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters to discuss the book (which has not been translated into Hebrew ), and even read the book aloud in a widely publicized event at the UN library in New York.
The artist responsible for "The Sandwich Swap," which was published in New York in English by Disney-Hyperion (and is aimed at children aged 4 to 8 ), is the veteran American illustrator Tricia Tusa. Her drawings supply the glue needed to combine the story's raw materials and yet break through the sterile background in which the story is set.
Reading the text alone is likely to give the feeling that the authors really believe that "It all began with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and ended with hummus." They don't. The story presents the dynamics of ethnic tension, which in this case may be bridged, in language that is clear and calm.
Nationalism on the table
"The Sandwich Swap" takes place in the kind of institution where Queen Rania was educated in her youth. As the daughter of a Palestinian family in exile, she studied with the children of many nationalities at an international school in Kuwait where the language of instruction was English. In interviews the Jordanian queen has said that the germ of the story is based on her childhood experiences, and that her mother used to send her to school every day with hummus sandwiches. She also describes the shock she felt the first time she saw peanut butter being eaten by a girl in her class.
Of course Queen Rania's autobiography is not the focus of the story. The sandwich incident touches on the question of multiculturalism; the illustrator plants hints about the complexity, roots and implications of nationalism and identity.
The element of nationalism is represented subtly in the types of food that Salma and Lily like: hummus symbolizes the friendly face of the Middle East to Westerners, while the peanut butter is an obvious symbol of Anglo identity, but together they produce a somewhat milquetoast conflict.
The illustrations aim a beam of light at the topics that the text subtly raises, most clearly so in the tri-fold drawing at the end of the book.
There is no text, apparently by design. A long table has been spread out in the school garden. On one side we see the children and on the other their favorite foods; above each dish is a flag of the country each child comes from - Italy and Japan; France and India; Lebanon and Greece. At the two ends of the table, next to the smiling Salma and Lily (who have now made up ), one sees the flags of Jordan and the United States.
Tusa places nationalism right on the table. The illustrations tie up the ends of the story wisely: the final illustration makes use of the two that open the book, in which the peanut butter and the humus sandwiches are presented separately. This is the essence of the fable.
Between beginning and end, the illustrator focuses on building the characters of Salma and Lily. She doesn't use stereotypes. Salma does have darker skin than Lily but this is not particularly noticeable.
The visual language changes as the story does - as the connection between the girls changes. At first they are large figures, taking up most of the illustration space, as when they hug a wide tree or when they are depicted happily drawing.
When Lily and Salma teeter-totter on a seesaw together or play ball in a courtyard, they are presented in the center of the picture, and the rest of the children, if depicted at all, are seen on the margins. But this isn't the case when the crisis develops.
It starts in a drawing of lunch at school. Tusa places the girls here in a broader social context for the first time: at their side, all along the table, many children eat their favorite foods. The drawings on the following page focus on the girls' separate lunches, and from here on the visual language changes completely, to emphasize the divide in the girls' friendship. Lily and Salma insult each other, shout and are offended (the text reveals a second difference at this point: Lily's father prepares her sandwich while Salam's mother makes hers ).
The drawings use understated language to illustrate the text instead of being large and dominant. A group of supporters gathers around each girl and their quarrel soon spreads and divides the school in two.
The drawing of the food fight at the height of the crisis spreads over a wonderful couple of pages in with the children throwing food in the air. Aside from Salma and Lily, apparently forlorn as a result of their fight, the rest of the children are very happy at the opportunity to run wild. This joy is intensified in a drawing of a mix of children and colorful bits of food in the air.
After a visit to the principal, the relations between the girls warm up again. Lily and Salma taste each other's favorite foods and make up. On a visual level, their proportions are automatically enlarged significantly, perhaps in light of the important and central place each once again fills in the life of her friend.
"The Sandwich Swap" takes place in an unusual setting that includes a rich and wide-ranging variety of cultures.
Not only has it not been translated into Hebrew, but it cannot even be bought it English here.
Modern Israel, despite fond memories as a society of immigrants and a multi-cultural ingathering of exiles, is far from the multicultural paradise depicted in the book.
The "other" that most Israeli children are exposed to in their schools is not really different from them. The ethnic and religious variety within the different groups that make up Israeli society, and which have become more withdrawn into themselves over the years, is thin and limited.
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