Book review, from Tokyo – It was Christmas eve in lockdown. The sudden ringing of the intercom startled me. I wasn’t expecting a delivery. Oh yes, a return for Tiny Owl book’s crowdfunding campaign, I eventually recalled. How beautiful it was, and timely to enjoy a story that invokes thoughts of renewal and reunion.
Taking a page out of the Iranian storytelling tradition, Sally Pomme Clayton’s The Phoenix of Persia took me to a park in Tehran where musicians and the storyteller readied their instruments before starting their performance – a story from the Shahnameh, the Persian literary epic, where a legendary firebird, the Simorgh, brings up an abandoned baby prince.
The ruler of Ancient Persia King Sam had been plunged into sorrow by the sight of his newborn son’s head of hair as white as snow. Despite Queen Aram’s pleas, he ordered baby Zal to be cast away, alone, into the wilderness where leopards prowled, wolves lurked, and other beasts roamed. Passing by above, the Simorgh heard Zal’s cries and brought the white-haired baby back to her nest and her other chicks atop The Tree of All Seeds on The Mountain of Gems. Versed in the history of the Universe and speaking the world’s tongues, the Simorgh taught Zal well, and he grew wise. Meanwhile, King Sam grew old. Realizing his grave mistake, he set out to find his son. Near where the baby was left many years ago, he encountered a young man with white hair, just like his. This was Zal. Having been brought up in the wild, the forests and mountains were the only home he knew. Seeing Zal’s reluctance to return to the palace, the Simorgh offered another piece of wisdom – “Being human is being able to forgive” – before leaving Zal with feathers to light and call for her aid. Zal returned to the kingdom, ruling wisely with a feathered crown.
By the end of the story, I am brought back to the park, yearning to hear the next tale from the Shahnameh.
Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif’s illustrations imbue the brilliantly colourful Simorgh with wisdom, kindness, strength, and grace. The special edition comes with an audio book that couples Clayton’s narration with music played on instruments described in the backmatter. Used to express specific characters in the story, including The Mountain of Gems, their sounds seem to blend and weave a story of forgiving and reconciliation of their own.
Title: The Phoenix of Persia by Sally Pomme Clayton, illustrated by Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif
Publisher: Tiny Owl, 2019 (hardcover), comes with audiobook version.