January 08, 2022

A Sky-Blue Bench

Written by Bahram Rahman
Illustrated by Peggy Collins
Pajama Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
 November 2021
Bahram Rahman, author of The Library Bus (Pajama Press, 2020), returns the reader to Afghanistan and offers another hopeful tale of resilience and courage, creativity and endeavour.
From A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman, illus. by Peggy Collins

Aria is an Afghan girl with lovely new red shoes and a helper-leg that she got after an accident. (Bahram Rahman's appended notes talk of land mines and unexploded ordinance.) While she is eager to be returning to school after her lengthy hospitalization, Aria is apprehensive, especially as all the wooden school furniture has been destroyed for firewood and the children now sit with bent knees on a floor tarp, something she will be unable to do.

From A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman, illus. by Peggy Collins
Aria contemplates not returning to school but rejects that idea and instead comes up with the "brave idea" to build herself a bench. Most of the girls laugh at her plan but Aria is determined and she and her lone friend scavenge the city for discarded wooden boards, broken pieces of furniture, and random nails and screws. Then, Aria and her mother visit a carpenter in the old city who, for the gift of a loaf of bread, loans her an assortment of tools and a can of sky-blue paint.
"Sky-blue is the color of courage, peace and," he tapped at his temple, "wisdom."
From A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman, illus. by Peggy Collins
And so a bench is created, and with it an opportunity for Aria and the other girls to take control of their own schooling needs.

Though Bahram Rahman makes it clear from his notes about circumstances he and others experienced in his homeland of Afghanistan, he does not dwell on the horrors of land mines or the challenges of living with a civil war. Instead Bahram Rahman speaks to a girl's determination to get an education, be proactive and resourceful, and to challenge herself to meet her own needs. It's a brave commentary on focusing on what you can change, not on what you can't, and Aria demonstrates that the possibilities can be inspiring. 

While there is a brightness and a child-like quality to her art, Peggy Collins (Harley the Hero, 2021) stays firmly in realism, but without immersing her art in the adversity of the situation. Aria's prosthetic leg is barely visible under her black dress and the challenges of the civil war are obscured by the vibrancy of the community in its activity and colour. Peggy Collins takes us into the Afghanistan of Aria's life, not of news reports: her school, her helper-leg, her mother and little brother, and her community. Her sky-blue bench is as assured as she is.

A Sky-Blue Bench may be a story from Afghanistan but its lessons about self-reliance and resourcefulness will speak to all children, especially those facing their own challenges, and encourage them to find solutions. With a desire, some hard work and a little wisdom, Aria was able to build something worthwhile, with wood and with vision.

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