This beautifully illustrated picture book takes the reader in to the world of camel racing, children jockeys, mistreatment by adults, children being sold by their families and running away, all in a span of 40 pages and on an AR 3.5 level. Yeah, its a lot for a kid’s book, but it has a happy ending and it does draw attention to an atrocity not often discussed or thought about.
Young Azad lives with his old uncle in a village outside the city. He helps take care of the goat and fetches water for tea in the mornings, in the afternoons he plays with his friends. One day he is doing handstands on a soccer goal post when a rich Sheikh drives by and sees him.
The Sheikh comes back and convinces the uncle to let him take the boy to be trained as a camel rider to one day be famous. The uncle agrees saying he can’t afford to keep him.
The Sheik takes Azad to the desert with other boys to live and be trained. Azad learns that food is earned and chores are a must. The races are dangerous and Azad doesn’t like them, but he is good and is forced to keep racing.
One night the camel, Asfur, talks to Azad and the two plan to keep running past the finish line at their next race. The pair are so fast that, they do just that, and no one can catch them. They run through the city, and back to the desert.
The other animals of the desert keep them warm when it gets cold and until a Beduin tribe discovers them and takes them in. At last Azad and Asfur find a home.
There is information about camel racing at the end including how robots are replacing child jockeys in some countries and how many young children are being returned to their families, school and a normal life.
I like that the book takes on a real and sad occurrence, bringing camel racing and forced child labor in to light. The story is truly written for younger elementary kids with short paragraphs on each page, large engaging illustrations, quick jumps in events and glossing over any truly graphic details.
I do worry that stereotypes are reinforced with the use of calling the rich man who bought Azad a “Sheikh” and the Bedouins dancing at the end. Culturally the book is a generic Middle Eastern country and doesn’t mention or emphasize religion at all with the exception of the women in the pictures being veiled.
I found the book at the library and think it has good information to discuss with your children, but I don’t know that I can see it being anyone’s favorite book, or a regular night time request. While, yes, it does have a happy ending, you don’t really “feel” what Azad is going through, you are just glad he finds people that want him.