Review: Avi and Ahmed Play Football in Jerusalem's Sacher Park

Avi and Ahmed Play Football in Jerusalem's Sacher Park 

by Kerry Olitzky & Inas Younis, illustrated by Leticia Saad

Dixi Books

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Eva L. Weiss

The plot of this pleasantly illustrated and simply told picture book focuses on misunderstandings between friends—nearly six-year-old Jewish Avi and his Arab friend Ahmed. The story is set in the heart of Jerusalem and the two boys enjoy playing together on the grassy lawns of Jerusalem’s largest public park, Gan Sacher. The misunderstandings are gentle: an American cousin introduces confusion about the terms football and soccer and Avi worries when his Ahmed doesn’t show up for his birthday party in another Jerusalem park. Avi calls his parents by the Hebrew terms Abba and Ima and we see a small kippa on Avi’s head. Ahmed’s culture is given a nod when it is explained that he knows the hour he is expected to go home when he hears the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Alas, that is a geographic blunder, since it is highly unlikely that the call from a mosque could be heard from Sacher Park. And any adult reader familiar with Jerusalem’s geopolitics would wince at the description of Ahmed’s home, Silwan, as a “little neighborhood.” It is a densely populated community deeply rooted in East Jerusalem whose recent history includes a contentious series of land disputes between its residents and the Jerusalem municipality.

Overlooking those missteps, it is possible to focus on the light-heartedness and good intentions that are at the heart of the story. The love of play naturally fosters friendship and laughter among children of different backgrounds—and the parents are happy to encourage the togetherness. Even when the humor is stilted, the message is benevolent, and appropriate to the age of picture book and beginning readers.

This book meets the Sydney Taylor Book Award criteria on most counts. It is a warm and inclusive story about a natural friendship between a Jewish and Arab boy set in contemporary Jerusalem. The illustrations are appealing, but reveal little of the city’s broader landscapes and Mediterranean colors and flavors. There is the happy exception of the street vendor who sells freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Even if tangible cultural references to Israel are limited, the message of respect for diversity is clear and affirmed by the adults in the background of the story. The visiting cousins from the United States and the gift football make the story relatable for young American readers. The moral of friendship, good sportsmanship, humor, and overcoming misunderstanding will resonate, though the plot deliberately shies away from the conflict in the region. The content, vocabulary, illustrations and format are amiable and appropriate for young children and early readers.

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Reviewer Eva Weiss is a writer, editor, and translator. She was born in New York City and worked in the publishing industry there before making her home in Israel many years ago. She is the author of the children's book I am Israeli (Mitchell-Lane, 2016)