“The Rabbits of the Moon Spring” a beautiful retelling of an ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra fable with ground-breaking illustrations

It’s not often that I have the opportunity to review a book before it’s even published. Well, the English version that is. So I’m thrilled and rather chuffed to be able to share with you “The Rabbits of the Moon Spring”. It is a joint work from the author Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi – an Iranian writer, scholar, critic and a founding member of the Research Institute for the History of Children’s Literature, and the award-winning Iranian illustrator Amir Shabanipour. Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi has now authored more than forty children’s books in different genres, many award-winning, and has been the Iranian nominee for the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 2006 and in 2021. “The Rabbits of the Moon Spring” was a winning book in the 2020 “Original Picture Book” nomination at the ХIV International Illustration and Book Design Competition “Image of the Book”  in Moscow, one of its illustration was included in the 2020 Bologna Children’s Book Fair Illustrators Exhibition.

Having viewed Amir’s stunning illustrations for this book (so far only published in Persian) which have been put forward for several exhibitions and awards, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Thankfully, in this era of social media and connectivity, I was able to reach out to Amir who kindly shared with me the e-version of the prospective English edition. 

“The Rabbits of the Moon Spring” is based on the sub-story (called ‘the rabbits and the elephants’) from the third story in the collection of fables “Kelileh and Demneh”, which is an early Persian translation of Sanskrit Panchatantra. The latter text, dating back to around the 2nd century, consisted of interrelated animal fables in Sanskrit verse and prose, compiled by Indian scholars for King Dabschelim. It is said that word about Panchatantra spread far and wide and reached the King of Iran Khosrow I (531 to 579 CE), also known as Anushirvan or “The Immortal Soul”, who ordered his people to travel to India, copy what was in Panchatantra and translate it into Persian.

Once there was a herd of elephants who were thirsty and in need of water. They soon came across a pond called the “Moon Pond”. The area was heavily populated by rabbits and they were trampled by the herd of elephants arriving at the pond. One moonlit night, a rabbit approached the elephant king and claimed to be a messenger from the moon itself. The rabbit told the elephant that the moon wanted the elephants to leave and never drink from the pond again, as they had spoiled it. The elephant looked at the pond and saw the reflection of the moon and how the moon seemed to tremble with rage when he tried to drink from it, and he prostrated to the moon and repented.

The Rabbits and the Elephants from the book of “Kelileh and Demneh”

Centuries after the “Kelileh and Demneh” came into being, a great 13th-century Persian poet Rumi included an allegorical form of the above fable in one of his poems in “Masnavi” (series of six books of around 25,000 verses considered one of the most influential works of Sufism, commonly called “the Quran in Persian”).  The fascination with this ancient story continues to this day and “The Rabbits of the Moon Spring” is the latest exposition of that tale.

This story can be read as an allegory of modern-day authority that brings about the oppression and exploitation of resources to the advantage of those in power. Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi’s uses evocative language and suggestive metaphors without being explicit, beautifully conveying the theme of the encounter between these huge, intimidating elephants and the tiny but very witty rabbits, who don’t give up and find a clever way to reclaim their space and save their beloved land.

Amir Shabanipours’ art is an indisputable hero of this picture book. I first discovered his work in the “Birds of a Feather” exhibition in Sydney. This exhibition of Iranian illustrators art has opened my eyes to the wealth of talent and inventiveness of the artists in that part of the world (see my review of “Birds of a Feather” here).

Amir’s illustrations, despite being highly stylised, immerse one into this striking land, green, luscious and abundant with water springs, where a diverse community of rabbits of all colours and sizes live in peace and harmony with their surroundings.

"The Rabbits of the Moon Spring" a beautiful retelling of an ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra fable with ground-breaking illustrations Bologna Children's Book Fair, Hans Christian Andersen Award, Multicultural Kids Book Reviews

Amir’s inspiration for the rabbits’ land was the Kandovan village on the mountain flank in East Azerbaijan Province in Iran. The Kandovan area is known as the land of lush green valleys, pleasant weather and mineral water springs with medicinal properties. The unique village is also famous for its rocky architecture (the result of volcanic activities) and for its dwellings and structures in the rocks hand-carved by its inhabitants. Notice the rabbits green mound-houses blending in with the natural world, in the illustration above.

"The Rabbits of the Moon Spring" a beautiful retelling of an ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra fable with ground-breaking illustrations Bologna Children's Book Fair, Hans Christian Andersen Award, Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
Kandovan Villate, East Azerbaijan Province, Iran

The rabbits’ peace and harmony have been disturbed when thirsty elephants, whose land has become dry and water scarce, decide to invade the rabbits’ land. Amir’s illustration below depicts the scorching heat as the elephants march onward, their imposing dark shapes and geometric pattern of their heavy procession conveying the menace of their search for greener pastures.

"The Rabbits of the Moon Spring" a beautiful retelling of an ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra fable with ground-breaking illustrations Bologna Children's Book Fair, Hans Christian Andersen Award, Multicultural Kids Book Reviews

Amir’s treatment of perspective can be most unusual, like in the image below. You feel like you are looking at a scene from multiple vantage points, offering both frontal and aerial birds-eye views at the same time. No classic linear perspective with views receding into the horizon, sometimes the horizon line is abandoned altogether. These compositions are mesmerising to look at. Analysing a similarly inventive illustration by Amir Shabanipour, the Australian award-winning children’s book publisher and scholar Margrete Lamond aptly referred to him as a “rule-breaking, ground-breaking” illustrator. “Rules of perspective have been tossed aside, but we can see exactly what is going on all the same. And it delights the eye, brain, body and soul,” noted Margrete.

"The Rabbits of the Moon Spring" a beautiful retelling of an ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra fable with ground-breaking illustrations Bologna Children's Book Fair, Hans Christian Andersen Award, Multicultural Kids Book Reviews

Formally educated in graphic design and painting, Amir Shabanipour began illustrating while studying, but longed to be a professional football player. Thankfully for us, he ended up being a professional painter and an illustrator (in stark contrast to my dream of becoming an artist but ending up as an accountant instead :). 

Amir’s work has been shown in numerous exhibitions in his native Iran as well as Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Germany, Serbia and Slovakia. His work has won multiple honour awards and been included in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair annual Illustrators Exhibition six times, most recently in 2021. He has also been a laureate at the Visual Art Festival in Tehran in 2006 and 2007 and has illustrated over 20 books, some translated and published in South Korea, Spain and Turkey.

Enjoy some more illustrations from “The Rabbits of the Moon Spring” below, and if your eye, brain and soul respond with delight, please leave a comment below.

Author: Mohamad Hadi Mohamadi
Illustrator: Amir Shabanipour
Publisher: Research Institute for the History of Children's Literature (TAK Books)
Year of publication: 2020
Language: Persian (English translation is on its way)
ISBN: 9786226986014
"The Rabbits of the Moon Spring" a beautiful retelling of an ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra fable with ground-breaking illustrations Bologna Children's Book Fair, Hans Christian Andersen Award, Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
"The Rabbits of the Moon Spring" a beautiful retelling of an ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra fable with ground-breaking illustrations Bologna Children's Book Fair, Hans Christian Andersen Award, Multicultural Kids Book Reviews
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Lux
Lux
1 year ago

Your research is top notch, brava.

I am very fond of Persian tales, especially the Shahnameh.

And this take has roots in India, fascinating…

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