I absolutely love The Girl with a Brave Heart for many reasons. It is a traditional tale from Tehran, retold by Rita Jahanforuz and illustrated by Vali Mintzi. So right there, I am a fan, because I believe it is important to expose children to positive things from Iran (and other "enemy" nations) in order to help our kids understand that Iranians are indeed people, just like we are.
Secondly, it begins much like “Cinderella” and kids always notice that. Making “connections” is so vital to engaged listening, and also to humanizing Iranians. They too have fairy tales about little girls with lazy stepmothers and stepsister(s) and have to do all the housework. They too, as the story goes on, value rewarding kindness.
The story itself is extremely captivating. Shiraz is relaxing after a hard day of doing chores, knitting upstairs with her cat, when her ball of yarn falls out of her window and into the yard of her neighbor, whom she has never met. Shiraz goes over to the house to ask for her yarn back, and is greeted by a very filthy old woman--her hair, her dress, her face, her fingernails are all so dirty and strange that Shiraz becomes afraid. She wants to run back to her own home, but she looks more closely at the woman and sees that she has kind eyes. Shiraz gathers the courage to go inside and discovers that the woman's entire home is a mess. The woman tells Shiraz that she can have her yarn back once she completes three tasks.
First, the woman says, Shiraz needs to smash eveything in the kitchen. Just destroy everything, to get rid of the mess. Instead, Shiraz cleans the kitchen, turning it into a welcoming and functional space. When the woman sees what she has done, she makes no comment other than to give Shiraz her second task: cut down all the flowers and bushes and destroy everything in the incredibly sad and over-grown garden. Once again, Shiraz sees past the words to the heart of the request: get rid of the unbearable mess. And so she does.
Once again, the woman does not respond except to lay out the final task: Shiraz is to cut off the woman's very long hair. Instead, Shiraz washes, brushes, and styles the woman's hair. After Shiraz has done this, the woman returns the ball of wool and thanks her. She then instructs Shiraz to go out back, where she will see two pools of water. Shiraz is to dive under water in the first, clear pool exactly three times. Then she must dive three times into the second, dark pool.
Shiraz then returns home. She knocks on the door, terrified that she will be in trouble for leaving the house without telling anyone. Her stepsister opens the door...and is incredibly polite. Shiraz is baffled, and says repeatedly that she is Shiraz, not the stranger her stepsister seems to believe. Her sister calls to Shiraz's stepmother, who is also very polite and refuses to believe that she is, in fact, Shiraz. They simply cannot believe it, because Shiraz is now incredibly beautiful. And this is yet another thing I love about The Girl with a Brave Heart: Shiraz looks exactly the same! Her hair is no longer in pigtails since she unbraided them to jump in the pool, but her face, clothing, and everything else is identical to what it was before--to our eyes, at least.
Shiraz finally manages to convince her family that she is indeed herself, and she tells them the whole story about what happened. Her stepmother sees an opportunity: she will have Monir, her daughter and Shiraz's stepsister, "lose" a ball of yarn in the old woman's garden, and Monir will complete the three tasks and then bathe in the pools, and then she will be even more beautiful than Shiraz. The following day, the stepmother goes to the market and buys several balls of yarn, and then tosses them every which way until one lands in the old woman's garden. Monir goes to fetch it--and the woman and her home are once again a complete wreck. Monir impatiently agrees to the tasks...only she does exactly what the woman says. She smashes the kitchen to bits, completely and utterly destroys the garden, and cuts off all of the woman's hair.
Monir then asks about the pools. The old woman looks at her new, horrible haircut in the mirror, and tells Monir to go out back and dive exactly three times into the dark pool, and then three times into the clear pool. Shiraz runs off, forgetting her ball of wool, and dives three times into the dark pool. Then, rationalizing that more is surely better, she dives ten times into the clear pool. She stays in the pool until sunset. Monir returns home, eager to see how her mother reacts to her new beauty. Except, when her mother opens the door, she slams it in Monir's face, declaring that she doesn't answer the door for beggars. Monir keeps knocking and shouting, until her mother finally understands that the ugly beggar is, in fact, Monir. And again, Monir looks exactly the same to us, only much more wet.
The stepmother asks Monir what she did wrong, and Monir replies that she did nothing wrong, she destroyed everything as requested! Her stepmother furiously asks Shiraz what she herself did differently. Shiraz replies that, instead of doing as asked, she listened to the old woman's heart and did what she thought the woman truly wanted.
As the years go by, many other people discover the hidden garden and its pools, and eventually they learn the truth: the pools do not make anyone beautiful or ugly; instead they make someone appear on the outside how they feel on the inside. What an amazing moral!
The biggest reason I love it is the message: Don’t only listen with your ears - you can also “listen” with your heart. There is incredible power in this story. The Girl with a Brave Heart is truly a book to read again and again and again! The final line of the book is one I relate to on a very personal level, as I am someone who struggles with depression and also was the mother to a nonverbal child, my beloved Atticus.
"When people are sad, they do not always know how to ask for what they need."