THE CARPET BOY'S GIFT
Note: See also the Best Children's Books of 2003 (p. 35).
In Pakistan, it was common practice for moneylenders to offer loans to struggling families in need of food and medicine in exchange for the services of their children, who were "bonded" to work off the family's debts. Iqbal Masih was one such child, bonded to carpet makers; but when a law against child slavery was passed in Pakistan in 1992, he not only escaped to his own freedom, but began to protest on behalf of children everywhere. He was murdered in 1995 in his home town, at the estimated age of 13.
This picture book focuses attention on the plight of young carpet workers in Pakistan, while shedding light on the worldwide issue of child labor. Nadeem and his cousin, Amina, toil in a carpet-weaving factory to pay off family debts, though they long to escape their harsh environment and attend school. The author builds a tale around Iqbal Masih, who is already free by the time Nadeem meets him. Although Shea's prose is more colorful and her characters more fully developed in her Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl's Story (Children's Forecasts, Sept. 22), the author knowledgeably introduces Nadeem's quandary, outlining the obstacles he faces and the horrible conditions in the factories (e.g., cuts healed with boiling oil, workers coughing up blood and "children, hunched over like barley sacks" at their looms). Inspired by Masih, Nadeem twice organizes fellow child workers to rise up against the unlawful bondage system. He is shackled to his loom after his first attempt, but word of Iqbal's murder inspires a second, this time successful attempt. In an effectively unsettling juxtaposition, Morin (Shy Mama's Halloween ) creates a border around watercolor portraits of the children's hopeful faces in their grim setting, with intricate floral and geometric carpet designs. The final scene of the children walking towards their freedom appropriately breaks out of the borders into a full-bleed spread. Endnotes list resources where more can be learned about illegal child labor and how readers can help. Ages 8-11. (Oct.)