When I was a child, my mother would get out her button box when I was especially bored or sick. It was an old cookie tin filled with buttons from simple to sparkling, and I loved looking at all the buttons and stringing them onto thread. The button box in this book, though, is truly next level.
The Button Box
by Bridget Hodder and
Illustrated by Harshad Marathe.
Read from a library copy.
Ebook available on Hoopla.
Cousins Ava (who is Jewish) and Nadeem (who is Muslim) have always been good friends as well. Now, though, they’re both experiencing bullying at school, with the bullies being especially hard on Nadeem, but even well-meaning classmates suggesting that things would just be easier if the cousins didn’t hang out together at school. They’re still distressed about this when they go to visit their Granny Buena after school. As the best grandmothers do, she tells them a story that will both distract and enlighten them, one that’s tied to a specific button in the family button box. And because Granny Buena can trace their Sephardic Jewish ancestry back for hundreds of years, she’s able to tell them a story of their ancestor Ester ibn Evram, who lived in Morocco circa the 750s.
Then, something truly magical occurs between Ester’s beautiful button and Granny Buena’s cat Sheba – and Ava and Nadeem find themselves in Ester’s Morocco, when Ester is just about their age. Helpfully, the magic has dressed them appropriately, given them the ability to understand the language, and even set them up as merchant cousins whose visit was expected. Even Sheba the cat is here and familiar to Ester! They don’t, though, have the memories or background knowledge of those cousins (unlike in Shirley Vernick’s Ripped Away.) They do know from Granny’s story, though, that Ester really needs to find a way to help the men she just met at the market – one of whom is the real historical Prince Abdur Rahman, who if he escapes the enemies currently chasing him down, will go on to found a kingdom known for peace, equality among religions, and great expansion of knowledge.
It’s really quite easy for time travel stories like these to head off the track in one of two directions – either the visitors from the present day have nothing to do but observe the goings-on, or their modern-day perspective is so vital that the hapless historical characters would clearly be lost without them. Here, our modern kids have an important role to play, but it’s Ester’s strength and determination that really wins the day. Faith is important to all of the children as well, who recall important precepts from their faith to guide them through tough decisions, especially emphasizing peace, love, and the importance of helping others. An afterward gives more historical information about Sephardic Jews, Prince Abdul Rahman, while a glossary lists the Ladino words that Granny Buena uses.
This would be a great step up for Magic Treehouse fans – a bit more complex in world-building and characterization, and definitely more enjoyable for parents reading to or with their kids. I’m looking forward to more adventures with Ava and Nadeem, Granny Buena, Sheba and the button box.
This sounds like a fun fantasy adventure. However I am a bit concerned about the historical context. It took Ireland the best part of eight centuries to free ourselves from the English (I think it took six for Spain to be free from the Moors) and I know I would not be happy with two 21st century kids travelling back in time to help one of the English lords take some of country and rule us, no matter how nicely… so I will definitely skip this one. I did enjoy reading your review, and I wish they had gone back in time to free the colonised people! 🙂
Interesting! I just looked up another article. It looks like the prince here did run a state in Spain that was tolerant of different religions, but alas, it was just a brief period of relative harmony. Later Muslim caliphates treated both Jews and Christians poorly, and then of course, when Christians regained power, they were not tolerant of either Jews or Muslims. Here’s one article I found; the parts about inter-religious relations are at the very end: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-important-events/moors-spain-0013798
It’s very interesting history, and thanks for the article, I look forward to reading it. Religious difference aside, I’m still uncomfortable with the colonisation aspect of the story (the English invaded Ireland pre-reformation and we will still didn’t like it! 🙂 ). I love when books (and blog posts!) get you talking and thinking about things you normally don’t talk about! 🙂 so thank you!
You’re welcome! It is very interesting to think about. Of course I know the Irish still aren’t happy about having been colonized, and I’m not a fan of colonialism in general. And this feels to me like a time where two things can be true at the same time- that Spain was unfairly colonized and their peoples oppressed. At the same time, the multicultural society of Al-Andalus led to an explosion of knowledge and science that wouldn’t have been possible without all of that cross-cultural mixing.
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