- Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet
After a massive dust storm, old man Issa—renowned as the most skilled guide in the African desert—discovers a baby girl in a basket carried by a camel that was separated from the rest of its party. Issa takes the child in, names her Mariama, and teaches her to know the desert as intimately as he does. As Issa ages, he goes blind, and Mariama learns to become his eyes as the pair leads strangers across the barren landscape. When a group of young men come through one afternoon, they scoff at the idea of a blind guide and set off through the mountains on their own—only to be caught in a storm that Issa and Mariama show up just in time to save them from. Their leader later returns to thank them, in the process discovering that he is in fact Mariama’s brother and that she is the daughter of the king of Sana. Inspired by stories of a famous blind guide of Timbuktu, this tale is rendered in sparse and poetic prose (“One was taller than a door and fierce looking, with a scar on his face that began beside his left eye and disappeared into his beard”). The relationship between Mariama and Issa is treated with compassion and respect while avoiding contrivance by quietly giving them distinct personalities, and although this isn’t strictly folklore, fans of the genre will appreciate the personable but wise narration and final plot twist. The mixed-media illustrations—some full-page panels, others as small insets, still others acting as backdrop for the text—communicate the harsh beauty of the desert with their soft and painterly outlines, vast and empty expanses, and earthy palette. The book’s picture-book format may mean it requires a little hand-selling to readers, but those who explore its pages will be rewarded with a simple tale that’s both adventurous and heartwarming.