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Ruler of the Courtyard

by Rukshana Khan, R. Gregory Christie, illus.

In Rukshana Khan’s new picture book, which is set in rural Pakistan, a little girl named Saba vies for control of the courtyard with chickens who scare her with their “bony beaks, razor claws, . . .[and] GLITTERY eyes.” One day, after managing to pass the squawking gauntlet on her way to the bathhouse, Saba catches a glimpse of something far worse than poultry. The black, coiled object in the shadows is silent, possibly waiting to strike. Will she scream for help, perhaps then endangering her rescuer, or can she deal with the snake by herself? The story’s triumphant resolution offers a tough suggestion for dealing with fear: face down an immediate and life-threatening danger, and the smaller worries will make you laugh. This is the sixth book for young readers by Rukshana Khan, who was born in Pakistan and moved to Canada at the age of three. Now based in Toronto, she writes about the experiences of Muslim-Canadian and Pakistani children. Ruler of the Courtyard combines two stories told by her sister-in-law and mother. The skillfully written narrative is a prose poem, its terseness in keeping with the tale’s fearsome subject matter and suspenseful development. The illustrations by Brooklyn-based artist R. Gregory Christie are a good match for the story. The acrylic paintings are full of wiggly lines made with a palate knife, creating a folk art effect that highlights the malevolence of the chickens and the dry, hot setting. The proportions of the stylized human figures, with their large heads and expressive faces, add a playful element to the pictures and complement the theme of fears that are enlarged by the imagination.