The Wooden Sword

ISBN: 0807592013 (ISBN13: 9780807592014)

Illustrated by Carol Liddiment

Published March 1, 2012 by Albert Whitman & Company

Disguised in servant's clothes, an Afghani shah slips out of his palace to learn more about his people. When he encounters a poor Jewish shoemaker full of faith that everything will turn out just as it should, the shah grows curious. Vowing that no harm will befall the poor man, he decides to test that faith, only to find that the shoemaker's cheerful optimism cannot be shaken. But the biggest challenge of the poor man's life is yet to come! Ann Stampler's retelling of this classic Afghani Jewish folktale is enriched by Carol Liddiment's charming and vivid paintings.

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Awards and Recognition

Co-winner of the Middle East Outreach Book Prize
Storytelling World Award
Sydney Taylor Honor Book
California Readers list
New York Public Library, 100 Books to Read and Share for 2012
Notable Trade Social Science Book for Young People 2012 by the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council

School Library Journal

K-Gr 2—A shah decides to test a Jewish shoemaker’s faith in God by outlawing each of the jobs he assumes, from shoemaker to water seller to woodcutter. The poor man eventually becomes a member of the royal guard, but can afford only a wooden sword. However, when he is told to behead a thief, he finds an ingenious way out of his predicament.

The Afghani setting is reflected through the warm, earth tones and through the intricate patterns on rugs, clothing, and wall hangings in the background of the richly painted spreads. Despite the man’s hardships, the simple yet elegant prose reinforces his optimistic refrain that “everything turns out just as it should.” The lush, detailed backgrounds of the spreads bring to life the various settings, such as the marketplace where the man mends shoes and the shah’s palace. Religious devotion is a theme throughout the story, but readers will be most drawn to the protagonist’s cleverness rather than his piety.

As a comprehensive author’s note explains, the clothing and cultural traditions of the characters are historically accurate. Ideal for those looking to add ethnic diversity to their folktale collections.

—Mahnaz Dar, formerly at Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Kirkus Reviews

An old Jewish folktale set in Afghanistan tests the faith and character of both a wealthy shah and a poor man. In old Kabul, the good shah leaves his lavish home disguised as a servant to discover whether the people of his country are “sad or happy, rich or poor, foolish or wise.” In the poorest part of town, he encounters a young Jewish couple happily welcoming the Sabbath. Impressed with their attitude despite their humble circumstances, the shah questions the man’s livelihood and decides to secretly challenge his never-failing faith by creating a series of decrees that will hamper the man’s ability to earn “puli,” or money.

Each time, though, the former shoemaker succeeds in finding new work as a water carrier, woodcutter and royal guard. When, as a guard, the young Jew is made royal executioner and must cut off the head of a thief, both faith and wit save the day, and the shah finally understands the Jew’s true ability to wisely carve out his path in life. Detailed, gently humorous paintings reflect the colorful richness of the Afghani traditional rugs, robes and turbans set against sandy mountainous backdrops. This tale of perseverance and confidence is told with well-researched authenticity and offers a positive view of this war-torn nation.

(author’s note) (Folktale. 5-8)

Horn Book

One night when the shah can’t sleep, he disguises himself as a servant and takes to the streets of old Kabul. He comes upon a Jewish shoemaker and his wife celebrating the Sabbath. The shoemaker invites the shah in to share the family meal. Though the shoemaker makes barely enough money to survive, he’s rich in faith: “If one path is blocked, God leads me to another, and everything turns out just as it should.” The shah decides to test the man’s belief.

First he outlaws shoe repair, then he prohibits water peddling (the resourceful man’s second employ), and finally he forces him to act as palace executioner. Because we’re told from the start that the ruler is a “good shah” and that he “would let no harm befall the poor man,” readers can be fairly certain that, even as the stakes escalate, no one’s head will roll. (Stampler’s author’s note discusses versions in which the power-wielding figure is less benevolent.)

Liddiment’s rich-hued paintings highlight the characters’ goodheartedness while carefully incorporating many culture-specific details and motifs; the vibrant patterns and lush costumes play well against the desert backdrop. At the end of the story, everything has turned out “just as it should” for the shah, who gains wise council from the man, and for the former shoemaker himself, whose faith and ingenuity remain steadfast.

—Elissa Gershowitz

Publishers Weekly

Once upon a time, an Afghani shah disguised himself in servant’s clothes to mingle among the common folk, and he came upon a poor Jewish man and his wife who seem improbably happy. “If one path is blocked, God leads me to another,” the man tells the Shah, “and everything turns out just as it should.” Impressed but skeptical, the Shah tests the Jewish man’s faith and discovers that his subject remains steadfast, sunny, and clever to boot.

It’s an intriguingly prickly story with an august lineage and comic climax worthy of Jack Benny or Mel Brooks. But this telling feels as if it’s been smoothed over to a fault, perhaps in the interest of ecumenical harmony. The two characters are merely pleasant narrative devices, and Liddiment’s (How Many Donkeys?) illustrations, while admirably evoking the aesthetic traditions of Islamic culture, have little dramatic tension. Still, it’s not a total miss. Stampler’s (The Rooster Prince of Breslov) storytelling has an assured, old-fashioned sense of pacing, with just the right amount of detail to draw readers in.

Ages 5–8. Agent: Brenda Bowen, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Illustrator’s agent: The Organisation. (Mar.)