Ava, a Sephardic Jewish girl, and Nadeem, her Muslim cousin, are best friends. After Ava and Nadeem are bullied at school, a mysterious button helps them travel back in time to medieval Morocco where they learn more about their roots and begin to take pride in their unique identities; their amazing adventures are recounted in The Button Box (Lerner/Kar-Ben, $17.99) co-written by a Sephardic Jewish and a Muslim author and based on real historical events surrounding the convivencia period in medieval Spain–at time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together without persecution. Fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Bridget Hodder about what she sees as the essential message of this magical tale.
YZM: Where did the inspiration for The Button Box come from?
BH: I grew up utterly under the spell of my sophisticated, slightly mysterious Sephardic Grandmamá. As a Sephardic Jew, I could never feel fully Jewish amongst my Ashkenazic friends, whose customs I did not understand. But Grandmamá was so firmly herself, and so clearly fabulous, that I could feel good about the culture she passed on to my mother and to me.
Everything about her was fascinating–from her untraceable accent, to her sparkling jewelry, to her oblique Ladino sayings and plaintive Spanish songs about abducted Jewish girls and Muslim princes. Grandmamá is the inspiration for Granny Buena in The Button Box; a woman who pulls out a chest full of magical, glittering buttons, each of which will transport her Muslim and Jewish grandchildren back to the time and place of the ancestor who wore it.
“The Button Box” is a metaphor for the handing down of Sephardic women’s wisdom from generation to generation. A wisdom almost subversive in its connection to positive ancestral female power, in a direct line back to “Meryam la profeta,” who, according to folklore, holds not only a tambourine but a set of mystical keys that can set a seal upon prayer. The Sephardic lifeways my own Grandmamá embodied are in danger of dying out with her generation–and in The Button Box, I have a chance to pass on some of what she gave me to readers around the world.
For years, I had shied away from writing what I thought of as “The Sephardic Book,” which eventually became The Button Box. Agents had told me it was “too niche”– no one wanted to hear about an obscure minority within the Jewish minority, who didn’t even eat bagels and lox or have bubbies, and who spoke strange, varied forms of Spanish. But with the rise over the past several years of foul-mouthed and foul-hearted new political factions that proudly promote hatred against Jews and Muslims in the U.S., I knew the time for “The Sephardic Book” had finally come. And I knew I would need a Muslim co-author to bring her genuine lived experience to the story. Because no tale of ancient Sephardic history can be accurately told without including Muslim history as well.
My friend and co-author, Fawzia Gilani-Williams, was inspired by her own family’s experiences of increasing anti-Muslim hatred in the world, and the situations she has seen as an educator in the U.S., U.K. and U.A.E. Her father’s family fled Partition in India with nothing but the clothes on their backs. She, too, is alarmed at the shocking turn politics and people have taken in recent years, pushing back on progress we have made. The interfaith love of The Button Box, paired with its time-travel foray into a historical Golden Age where Jews, Muslims, and Christians co-existed in peace, was a perfect opportunity to cultivate allyship and courage in the face of these challenges.
YZM: How did the writing partnership between you and Fawzia come about?
BH: We were introduced by Joni Sussman, publisher of the Jewish imprint at Lerner Books–Kar-Ben—who later bought The Button Box. Joni had already worked with Fawzia Gilani-Williams while editing Fawzia’s beautiful interfaith picture book classic, Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam.
Fawzia and I clicked instantly…and the rest is history! (Muslim and Jewish time-travel history, to be exact.) We worked very hard for years to infuse the book with “Celebration Representation”—my term for raising the bar from toleration of diverse identities, to celebration of them.
Fawzia works in the U.A.E. and I’m in Boston, so the process wasn’t easy. Yet we partnered via Zoom, Google Docs and email to create characters who were true to their own religions and cultures, while still managing to be true to each other.
YZM: How are Sephardic Judaism and Islam represented in the book, and how are their ancient histories intertwined?
BH: Sephardic Jews and Muslims in the book are represented as inextricably culturally intertwined…because we are. At the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, His Excellency Dr. Ali Rashid Al’Nuaimi of the UAE recently spoke of his deep longing to see a return of the Golden Age of Sefarad for Jews and Muslims, and how his country is working to make that a reality within their boundaries and throughout the Middle East. So make no mistake–what happened in the past is still very real to us today, and can be a beacon of hope for peace.
As for ancient history, Jewish and Muslim cultures probably began giving rise to a Sephardic identity around 1500 years ago. But the synergy didn’t truly take off until 755 CE, when Abdur Rahman I, the historical Muslim prince who appears in The Button Box, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Hispania and founded a beautiful Muslim caliphate there.
Courageous, innovative Jews had already ventured into Hispania long before, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. And when word of Abdur Rahman’s religious tolerance spread, more Jews came. This positive Jewish and Muslim interaction, which included Christians as well, gave rise to a Golden Age in Iberia–a fabled time of huge leaps forward in sciences, literature and the arts. My own ancestors in Toledo were part of it.
YZM: Why is it so difficult to find mainstream children’s books in U.S. public schools that accurately mirror these cultures and belief systems?
BH: Books with characters who depart from the white nondenominational Christian status quo have long been excluded from public schools, as a potential source of controversy. Even now, they are filed away in the “Religion” section in libraries and bookstores instead of among their YA and Middle Grade literary peers.
This largely unconscious default mode renders Jewish or Muslim characters uncomfortably conspicuous for teachers who worry about the appropriateness of “religion in the classroom.” Once students notice these characters, they might start asking questions about them that educators don’t feel equipped or empowered to answer. And the educators themselves may then be attacked by intentionally disruptive parent challenges.
The Button Box isn’t a proselytizing tool; it’s an adventure story with Jewish and Muslim kids doing a few ordinary Jewish and Muslim things, while they travel through time learning how to own and defend their cultural identities. Yet public school librarians have already approached me to ask, “Is it safe for me to give your book to our students?”
That word “safe” should shock us in the context of buying diverse books. Our educators don’t just feel threatened right now, they are threatened, simply for trying to stock books that accurately reflect the complexity of the free world outside their school walls.
YZM: What is the convivencia? Can you describe the ways Jews and Muslims co-existed in medieval times? When did this change?
BH: Convivencia in its simplest form means “co-existence” in Spanish. But it also refers to the incredibly productive harmony of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Iberia during the Golden Age of Sefarad, from the early 8th century to the late 15th.
During the convivencia, Jews became knights, and jousted in tournaments. We were surgeons, engineers, poets, herbalists, singers, merchants and generals. We were cool. (Which of course we still are, but…jousting!) When my Grandmamá used to sing archaic Spanish songs about ladies in castles and the lords who vied for their favor, I always knew those were our ladies and our lords…and somehow, it made a difference.
The Button Box explores the exact moment when the stage was set for the Golden Age to take place. We hope to transport readers to further exciting chapters of the convivencia in the next books in the Button Box series.
YZM: What do you see as the takeaway here? What kinds of conversations do you hope the book will spark?
BH: We want readers to enjoy the book so much that they don’t realize they’ve come to love and understand Muslim and Jewish characters who may be very different from themselves–or who, conversely, may joyfully reflect their own experience.
We included maps, a Ladino/Arabic/Hebrew glossary, reading resources and thorough historical notes at the back of our book to support further discussion and study. We are consciously empowering kids and adults who feel unequipped to answer even the most basic questions like “Who are Jews?” and “Who are Muslims?” and touching on some of the issues you brought up in this interview.
In addition, The Button Box belongs in public schools, to provide an accurate, light-filled counter-balance to the dark Holocaust narratives which are often public school kids’ only exposure to Jewishness.
YZM: What’s next for you and Fawzia?
BH: We’re thrilled to have a picture book, “The Promise,” coming out with Kar Ben in 2023! The action takes place in WWII Morocco, with Sephardic and Muslim protagonists, though it is not a Holocaust tale. Based on a true story of love, loss and friendship regained, we can’t wait to share it with the world.