‘The Button Box’ explores a Jewish-Muslim friendship – with time travel

In “The Button Box,” a new mid-level novel, a Jewish-Muslim friendship is at the center of a thrilling time travel tale.

Ava, a Sephardic Jewish girl, and her cousin and best friend Nadeem, who is Muslim, are bullied at school because of their religion. When the two girls go to their grandmother Buena to tell her about the incident, they discover a magic button that sends them back in time to ancient Morocco.

It is in this colorful and lively setting that they meet their ancestors and embark on a thrilling adventure. “The Button Box” is based on actual events that took place during the friendliness period of medieval Spain, where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in peace.

The book was co-authored by Bridget Hodder, a Sephardic Jew and daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and Fawzia Gilani-Williams, who is Muslim.

“Fawzia and I are keenly aware that our communities are facing increasingly emboldened acts of violence and hatred, and Leviticus 19:16 calls us not to sit idly by,” Hodder said. “‘The Button Box’ is, in part, a response to that call.”

Hodder wrote the first draft of the book with the support of an Author Incentive Award from the PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. But when she finished it, she felt like something was missing.

“The book needed not only a Sephardic Jewish main character, but also a Muslim one.” –Bridget Hodder

“Turns out the ‘something missing’ was Fawzia,” she said. “I have always known that the history of the Sephardim in the golden age of Spain and Morocco, where the adventures of ‘The Button Box’ take place, was deeply linked to Muslim history. But for some reason, I hadn’t thought about it. The book needed not only a Sephardic Jewish main character, but also a Muslim character.

Bridget Hoder

Gilani-Williams previously wrote an interfaith picture book titled “Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam,” which is about two neighbors — one Jewish and the other Muslim — who are best friends.

“[Gilani-Williams] was the authentic, beautiful voice I’ve been waiting for,” Hodder said. “Once we started working together, we never looked back.”

It was important for Hodder to write a book focusing on Sephardic Jewish culture because of his family background. His grandmother was born in the Ottoman Empire, in the Jewish city of Salonica; the Greeks delivered the Jews to be exterminated by the Nazis during World War II.

“Even the homes and graves of the Jews of Salonica were razed and rebuilt,” she said. “But our spirit will not die.”

She hopes readers will learn why it’s appropriate to step up and defend yourself against bullying.

She hopes readers will learn why it’s appropriate to step up and defend yourself against bullying. There are also many fun aspects of Sephardic culture they can delve into within the pages of the book, including descriptions of Mediterranean, Baltic and Middle Eastern cuisine and old sayings.

“[A lesser known] The Sephardic custom is to quote old sayings at every opportunity, a habit I inherited,” Hodder said. “You’ll find them throughout the book, including sayings in Ladino, the Sephardic language based on archaic Spanish. This is our parallel for Yiddish.

Hodder and Gilani-Williams also want to educate children in the United States about Jewish and Muslim beliefs with their book.

“How can they stand up and counter hateful nonsense about Jewish conspiracy theories, for example, when they have no real facts?” Hoder said. “With this in mind, we have provided a brief background information section at the end of the book, which should give non-Jewish and non-Muslim readers some basic tools for knowing and spreading the truth. We hope this ends up in the classrooms.

Through gripping storytelling and a classic friendship tale, the authors strive to entertain readers while opening their eyes to new information at the same time.

“The best books are always the ones where you gain wisdom along the way, without feeling ‘taught,'” Hodder said. “So above all else, we hope readers will enjoy the adventure so much that they won’t realize they’re learning by reading.”

“The Button Box” is available through Kar-Ben Publishing.

Edward K. Thompson