Ahmed and the Feather Girl
by Jane Ray
(Janetta Otter-Barry Books, Frances Lincoln, 2010/Paperback 2014)
‘There was once a little orphan boy with big dark eyes. He was called Ahmed and he lived with a travelling circus.’ The circus owner Madame Saleem was ‘cruel and bad-tempered’ and ‘Ahmed was afraid of her’. So begins Ahmed and the Feather Girl, immediately setting up the narrative with the stock characters and the matter-of-fact tone of a fairy/folk-tale-like story. One day, Ahmed finds a huge, golden egg, which is immediately purloined by Madame Saleem; and when a beautiful girl, Aurelia, hatches from the egg, as might be expected Ahmed befriends her and Madame Saleem exploits her. As Aurelia grows, she ‘began to sprout fine silken feathers’. It is clear to Ahmed that she longs for freedom and one night he steals the key from Madame Saleem and releases her. Ahmed then has to endure Madame Saleem’s wrath and a return to friendless loneliness. Or does he? His selfless act eventually leads to his own freedom – but you will have to read this beautiful story for yourself to find out how!
Jane Ray’s beautiful illustrations in watercolour and collage are filled with rich details. The vibrancy of the circus sits alongside landscapes filled with woodland creatures and birds. The freedom of the wild birds flying emphasises Aurelia’s captivity. One illustration that I find particularly compelling is where Ahmed is shown drawing the key from under Madame Saleem’s pillow – the grey hues of her head emerging from the blanket give the drawing a sculptural quality and the contrast between her repose here and her energetic malevolence when she is awake is disturbing.
There is a timelessness to the story emphasised, ironically, by the focus of the narrative on its own timeline: we learn nothing about Ahmed’s back-story and how he became an orphan; that introductory first page sets the scene and it is enough. Nor do we learn what becomes of him after his flight to freedom, not even a ‘happily ever after’: again, for the purpose of the story, it is enough, for now, that Ahmed finds freedom. That does not mean that children listening to or reading the story won’t want to know, but they will have to translate the hope at the end into a more solid realisation of happiness for themselves. In this way, Ahmed and the Feather Girl steps away from being a stock story and becomes a wish for our times. For as our daily news is filled with horror stories of child exploitation and cruelty, children need empowering stories filled with hope to help them set about changing the world as they grow up.
Take a look at this Diversity Gallery of Jane Ray’s diverse children’s book illustrations with quotes from Sita Brahmachari’s recent interview with Jane Ray for her Book Trust Writer in Residence blog.