Picture books have an extraordinary capacity to speak a universal language, that transcends communication, cultural and educational barriers. 18+2 Woodpeckers (written in Farsi) is one of those rare books that manages to do exactly that, by telling a story that transcends language barriers and shines a light on physical differences and the language of the deaf and hard of hearing.
“18+2 Woodpeckers” – The Review
“18+2 Woodpeckers” is about 20 children living in a village near the shores of a pristine ocean, surrounded by lush forest. The whole village is teeming with life and the sounds of nature. The surf crashing on the beach, the gentle wind blowing in the trees, children’s laughter, bird’s chirping, and 20 woodpecker’s beaks tapping and drumming on the trunks of the trees. This symphony of sound falls effortlessly upon the ears of 18 happy children who are able to enjoy its song. However, two children, isolated by their differences, are not able to resonate with its sweet sound because their ears are silent.
The 18 children who can hear the woodpecker’s drumming each befriend one of the birds and give their woodpecker a name. Sadly, two woodpeckers remain unfriended and nameless because they cannot converse with the two deaf children through their drumming.
The clever woodpeckers start looking for ways to communicate with the deaf children and discover a silent connection by using their feathers as signs and symbols to replace sounds, and then a sign language is born.
This book leans heavily on symbolism and metaphor. The woodpeckers play the role of the “voice of life” in this story, those sounds that not all human beings are able to hear. There are two groups of children, the larger group of 18 who hear these sounds and the minority group of two who cannot; separated only by physical differences but separated just the same and unable to experience the same pleasures of the many, often taken for granted.
Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi – The Author
“18+2 Woodpeckers”, published by the Research Institute for the History of Children’s Literature of Iran, was written by the celebrated Iranian author and a luminary in children’s literature research Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi. Those who follow my blog would be familiar with another gem of a picture book penned by this talented author – “The Rabbits of the Moon Spring”. Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi is also a scholar, critic and founding member of the Research Institute for the History of Children’s Literature. In 2006, he was the Iranian author nominated for Hans Christian Andersen Award, known as the Little Nobel prize in Literature.
The award-winning Iranian illustrator Salimeh Babakhan has added her visual poetry to Mohammadi’s text, and the fusion of these two talents created an award-winning book. “18+2 Woodpeckers” was the laureate of the 2021 Image of the Book International Illustration Competition in Moscow, shortlisted for the 2021 Bologna Children’s Book Fair Award, selected at the 2020 COW Illustration Biennale as well as nominated for the 2020 Brightness International Picture Book Awards.
Art direction for this book was by Marit Tornqvist and Zohreh Ghaeinia. Zohreh Ghaeini is an Iranian children’s literature translator and researcher, and Marit Tornqvist is a prominent Dutch illustrator who was a close friend of Astrid Lindgren, one of the greatest children’s authors of the 20th century. Marit has mentored Samileh Babakhan’s work on “18+2 Woodpeckers” as part of a collaboration with the “Read with Me” inter-cultural project. The main objective of “Read with Me” is to make quality books accessible to Iranian children who don’t have access to books, including children and young people living in remote and deprived areas of Iran or with a socio-economic background that precludes them from reading.
Samileh Babakhan – The Illustrator
I was initially drawn to this book by my continuing fascination with the work of talented Iranian illustrators. Salimeh Babakhan’s illustrations of “18+2 Woodpeckers”, shared on her Instagram page, instantly grabbed me and I knew this was another Farsi book I just had to engage with (check out the account of my first encounter with Iranian picture book creators).
Salimeh’s colour palette is vivid, bright and positive, and her illustrations evoke a kaleidoscope of colour and sound. While contemplating her images, you can imagine yourself basking in the warmth of the golden sunlight, wading into the sky blue of the surrounding ocean, trekking through the lushness of the deep purple and green foliage and meandering the rainbow-coloured houses of the village.
Look at the imaginative, non-linear perspectives and viewpoints of Salimeh’s illustrations! There’s a playful disregard for conventional proportion and perspective, characteristic of quite a few Iranian illustrators. The page spread below works as a landscape or portrait view and fools our perception as we rotate the book. Is this a front-facing landscape view of the tall trees and woodpeckers, or a portrait view of the house and beach from above? Or is it a blended view of both?
Inspiration for “18+2 Woodpeckers”
“18+2 Woodpeckers” was inspired by the author’s reflection on how historically, and still to an extent, human societies fail to understand and meet the needs of children born differently. Many examples, evidenced in folklore and literary tradition, show such children as possessed by evil. In “A Hearer’s Insight into Deaf Sign Language Folklore” Liina Paales discusses historic references alluding to such attitudes: like Herodotus’ account of the life of Croesus, the last king of Lydia (560–547 BC), who had two sons, one hearer and one deaf, and would not recognise his deaf son; Judaist and Christian societies associating disabilities with evil and the miraculous healings performed by Jesus with curing the curse of disabled and helpless; in cultures believing in reincarnation, deafness was perceived as bad karma or punishment for the faults of previous lives, whilst some Sri Lankan religious rituals practiced exorcism of Biri-sanniya (the demon of deafness).
Demonising and marginalising did not stop at the deaf but were extended to anyone born with a difference. For example, in the Persian tale from Shahnameh (the 10th-century epic poem by the Iranian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi), baby Zal was born a white-haired albino. His father considered his albino appearance demonic and abandoned the infant, leaving him in the wilderness of the mountains where the child was sure to perish. Fortunately, the child survived in this story, having been found by the mythical bird Simorgh, who raised Zal amongst her offspring. Furthermore, in this tale, Zal grew strong and beautiful and eventually forgave his father, who was by then full of remorse for his horrible deed (read more about the legend of Zal and Simorgh here).
Whilst demonising people with differences is mostly a thing of the past, understanding and supporting deaf communities and cultures is what we can all do better today. World Health Organisation estimates that over 400 million people today, including 34 million children, live with disabling hearing loss, affecting their health and quality of life.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of deaf children is that 90% are born to parents with no hearing problems. These children do not acquire sign language from their parents and usually grow up socialised into a community quite different to their birth families. Deaf communities create sub-cultures by using sign languages, teaching and respecting their community’s traditions, creating deaf culture folklore by engaging in story-telling (known as ‘deaflore’), celebrating in-group marriages and performing on stage and singing.
Deaf children worldwide deal with literacy and learning difficulties, which is in no way an indication of intelligence or their capacity to learn, but points to the challenges of learning to read or write a language that they cannot hear. As someone whose life has been enormously enriched by books and the joy of reading, it saddens me to think that some children are precluded from experiencing the learning, wonderment and endless possibilities that lie between the covers of a good book because they are deaf or hard of hearing.
This is why I love picture books like “18+2 Woodpeckers”. They shine a light on other groups in our society who are sometimes overlooked and help to raise our awareness and awaken our empathy for those who are physically challenged, or just a little different.
Title: “18+2 Woodpeckers”
Author/Illustrator: Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi, illustrated by Salimeh Babakhan
Publisher: Research Institute for the History of Children’s Literature of Iran (TAK Books)