Born in Iran and raised in Israel, multiplatinum-selling singer Rita Jahanforuz has written a picture book based on a story her mother often told her during her early childhood years in Tehran. The Girl with a Brave Heart: A Tale from Tehran tells of a girl who reveals her inner beauty when she shows kindness toward an elderly neighbor. Illustrated by Romanian-born Vali Mintzi, the book will be released in March by Barefoot Books. The original Hebrew version of the book, published by Kinnert Zmora-Bitan Publishing in 2010, was a bestseller in Israel.
After she had two daughters of her own, Jahanforuz began to tell them the story of the brave girl, though she says she had to soften it somewhat. “My mother had heard the story from her grandmother, and the tales from those times are a little bit more cruel and frightening that children today are used to,” she explains. Her younger daughter, now 12, was especially taken by the story and, says the author, “she began to ask me every night to tell her this story. So I started to add some things to the story that I wanted her to learn, to emphasize the kind of person I would like her to be.”
After telling the story aloud for years, Jahanforuz decided to heed a friend’s advice to put it in writing. “I write lyrics for my music, and when my friend told me to sit down and write down this story, that’s what I did,” she says. “I started to show it to some professional publishing people, and they said they thought it was an amazing story. I worked with the illustrator, Vali Mintzi, and she brought a lot of her imagination to her paintings. She included a lot of the colors that I remember from my childhood in Tehran – colors of spices like cinnamon and curry.”
The author found that writing for children was not a very different experience than writing song lyrics. “For me, the writing of both comes from the same place,” she says. “It’s a place that is very pure, innocent, and sincere.”
The Hebrew version of The Girl with a Brave Heart caught the eye of Tessa Strickland, the Oxford, England-based cofounder and editor-in-chief of Barefoot Books, when she came across it at Bologna last year. “Not speaking Hebrew, what first attracted me to the book was the quality of the illustrations,” she recalls. “I admire Raoul Dufy’s work, and Vali Mintzi’s illustrations transported me in the same way that his art does. I have spent some time in several Middle Eastern countries, and for me her art captured the character of this part of the world in a convincing and colorful way.”
Strickland acquired the book after reading what she calls “an approximate” translation of the text, and she and editor Katie Livesey worked together to create the English-language version. Strickland believes that the title is a solid fit for her house’s picture book list. “I look out for stories that give children from different parts of the world a window into a particular culture, yet do so in a way that is easy to understand, whatever the reader’s background,” she says. “When I read this story, it felt like a Barefoot picture book through and through. It is accessible, surprising, and inspiring.” The U.K. edition of the book is also due out next month.
Despite the story’s specific geographical setting, Strickland says that the book’s message is universal and timeless. “Of course, the Tehran setting gives it a particular quality and meets a need I often hear of for more tales from the Middle East,” she says. “But, like all good folktales, the story speaks of the human predicament in a way that is both particular and universal. Its central themes are the power of kindness and the importance of not judging from appearances.”
Asked what message she wants young readers to pull from The Girl with a Brave Heart, Jahanforuz again evokes her daughter. “What I wanted for my daughter to take from this story is that sometimes people don’t know how to really express what they want, and sometimes children don’t know how to say, ‘Please, love me.’ I want my daughter to listen to what’s underneath the words people say, and to hear the real, clear sound of people’s hearts. This is what the girl in this story does. She listens with her heart and does what she thinks is right.”
The Girl with a Brave Heart by Rita Jahanforuz, illus. by Vali Mintzi. Barefoot Books, $16.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-84686-929-7; paper $7.99 ISBN 978-1-84686-931-0