Camel Rider (Charlesbridge, 2007, 202 pp) is the debut novel of Australian writer Prue Mason. I'm a fan of the "children surviving on their own in difficult circumstances" genre, so this book was right up my alley. Two boys-- Adam, a privileged Australian, and Emir, an enslaved camel rider from Bangladesh-- must survive an arduous trek across an Arabian desert with nothing to speak of in the way of survival equipment, all the while pursued by hostile adults. As well as becoming keenly engaged in the plight of the boys, my interest was sustained by the setting and situation--the only other book I can remember reading about a boy in Arabia is King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry (which, incidentally, is a lovely book). Camel Rider is a real page turner--I couldn't put it down.
A central theme of the book is the difficulty of communicating across cultural and linguistic barriers. The story is told from the perspective of both boys (although primarily from the point of view of the Australian), so the misunderstandings are clear, as are the growing dependence of the boys on each other, and their increasing camaraderie.
Prue Mason, in her afterword, writes: "I learnt that when people from different cultures meet, they often don't rust or respect each other, and there can be many misunderstandings that can even lead to war. But after having lived and made friends with people from other nationalities, I know that no culture is better than another; we just do things differently." This is fine if you think of this statement in terms of Adam and Emir's relationship, and watching the two boys growing to respect each other is a fine thing. It gets a little tricky when the bad part of Emir's world (slavery, physical abuse, the treatment of women) is so much clearer to see than the bad part of Adam's world (the sense of entitlement and privilege, the ignorance of other cultures). It would not be hard for a child to leave this book with a mind full of negative thoughts about "Arabic culture," in contradiction to the author's statement above.
In short, this is an engrossing page turner, that I would cheerfully recommend to middle grade readers who want their eyes opened to a different part of the world, as long as they have a chance to talk about it with an informed grown-up! (Charlesbridge has a discussion guide on line to facilitate this).
nb: I recieved my copy of this book from the publisher.