Blending facts with an imaginary narrative, author Kathi Appelt’s novel for middle school readers shares the fictional story of Zada, a female camel. Born in 1850 in Smyrna, Turkey, in the stable of the rich Pasha, Zada and another camel named Asiye become fast friends and are excellent competitors in the camel races for which the Pasha is renowned. Groomed, taught, and loved by Teodor, their cameleer, Zada and Asiye thrive.
The camels' lives irrevocably change in 1856 when the United States Army travels by ship to the Mediterranean Sea, stopping at various ports to acquire camels for an experiment. Thirty-four camels, including Zada and Asiye—and Teodor, who will care for them—are transported to Indianola, Texas. The camels are employed in making the extensive journey from Texas to San Diego, Calif., to survey a route for a new railroad. The reason for acquiring them? They can survive on less water than other pack animals.
Years pass, and Zada and the other camels are sold or left to fend for themselves in the wild. Lonely and distraught, Zada is welcomed into an unusual family. Two mature American kestrels, Perlita and Pard, and their fledglings, Wims and Beulah, love their Auntie Zada. All is well until a haboob, a tsunami of a dust storm, sweeps down on the unlikely family. When Perlita and Pard are blown away by the unrelenting wind, Zada convinces the fledglings to hop from their nest onto the furry patch between her ears. They do, and the adventure of the three caravanners begins.
Wims and Beulah worry and fret because of their missing parents, so Zada shares the stories of her fascinating youth and adulthood, hoping to comfort the tiny birds. Some short, some long, some happy, some sad, some ending with unanswered questions—Zada’s stories are balm in a troubling time.
Once Upon a Camel contains gentle humor and laugh-out-loud moments about sibling rivalries and family dynamics. The book offers poignant insights into the pain of loss and the ache of missing loved ones who have died. Appelt weaves together intriguing information about American kestrels, camels, mountain lions, and life in the desert with history—the United States Army did acquire 34 camels—into a satisfying novel. (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)