By Maureen Tai, 16 April 2018
“Issa’s old eyes had watched thousands of dawns, but still it seemed to him that each one was a miracle. Each time, it lifted his heart.”
Some books entice because their authors are celebrities. Many books call out with their intriguing titles. And there are those books such as Mysterious Traveller that ensnare you with their magnificent cover illustrations.
P.J. Lynch’s spectacularly rendered watercolours embellish almost all of the unnumbered pages of this slim storybook – undulating desert plains and breathtaking mountain vistas; anxious, stern or thoughtful faces framed by the folds of turbans and headscarves; figures shrouded in flowing robes that catch the wind like sails of a ship. The artwork is simply stunning.
A small flock of camels and their riders are desperately trying to escape from pursuers who mean them harm, but they encounter an even more life-threatening danger – a violent sandstorm in an unsheltered desert. The storm subsides, and leaves a mere fragment of a clue of the riders’ passage. Issa is a guide, and the only person who knows the desert like the back of his hand. Following that fragile fragment, Issa discovers a hidden cave, a sandblasted camel and a baby in a basket. The infant has a golden talisman hanging from a cord around her neck. Issa is a religious, wise, good and gentle man, and he raises the child as his own. For the rest of the story, we follow Issa and the baby (now called Mariama) as the child blossoms into a young woman, as wise, good and gentle as her saviour, and as Issa slowly and tragically ages before her (and our) eyes. An encounter with three strangers to the desert unlocks the secret of Mariama’s past and the story closes with a pleasing glimpse into the old man’s future.
By the end, you realize that the beauty of the pictures is matched by the artistry in the writing. Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham were a husband and wife team (until Mal’s death in 2015) who wrote a number of meticulously researched and exquisitely written children’s books.
Illustrator Patrick James Lynch (1962- ) was the fourth Laureate na nÓg, Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about his life and his work, and having a photograph taken with him, a wonderful, memorable experience. Reading Mysterious Traveller is a similarly wonderful and memorable experience, and I highly recommend it as a gift to any child who enjoys holding wonder in their hands.
For ages 7 and up.