About Niranjana

Editor, College Essay Consultant, Book Reviewer, Writer.

Rebel Voices by Louise Kay Stewart

Vote. Vote. Vote.

Rebel Voices: The Global Fight for Women’s Equality and the Right to Vote is a slim picture book that depicts the story of women’s voting rights. It’s a narrative that will inspire and madden you by turns.  The author presents the history of suffrage movements in various countries in the chronological order that their women gained the vote. Yay, New Zealand–the first country to give women the right to vote, in 1893; Saudi Arabia joined the club in, um, 2015. And some surprises too–Switzerland gave women the vote in 1971!  And it’s sad (but perhaps not surprising) that many former colonies who’d gone through long painful struggles to cast off their oppressors didn’t give their women the vote after gaining freedom. Like Nigeria, which rid itself of British rule in 1960–and denied women their voting rights till 1976. Boo.

The book is for the 11-14 crowd, and is filled with tales of strength and (not-too-graphic) suffering, of women protesting in the cold and rain, losing their employment, being imprisoned, beaten, and force-fed with tubes shoved down their throats.  We learn about the cruelty of the men who were firmly convinced that law, logic, and the good lord were on their side, and that often, they cast their opposition as respect and care. One said that women’s hands were “not for holding ballot boxes, but for kisses.” I can hear a room of 12-yr-olds going YUCK.

Despite the protests by women (and the men who supported them), those in power were often obdurate; in several cases, it was large-scale societal changes caused by WWI or II that made it possible for women to get the vote.  I’m reminded of the Assata Shakur quote–“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Furthermore,  the book omits to mention that plenty of women too opposed universal suffrage, believing that the women voters would be violating gender norms and god’s will, and  worked sincerely to support the patriarchy and deny themselves voting rights.

Rebel Voices presents a solid case for moving to New Zealand–there’s the LOTR landscapes, a cool prime minister, and a political system that granted equal voting rights to Maori women and white settler women right from the start. WOW. In most other countries, white women suffragists eagerly threw their sisters of color under the bus. Of course South Africa gave white women the vote in 1930 and black men and women the vote in 1994, but consider the US, where white women gained the right to vote in 1920 while black women in some states had to wait till 1965. Australia: 1902 and 1962 for white and Aboriginal women respectively. As for Canada, white women received the vote in 1918, but “Asian women and men were left out and were not included until after the Second World War. Indigenous women and men living on reserves — and most everywhere else as well — were viewed as wards of the Crown under the Indian Act, and were excluded from the vote across Canada, except in rare cases, until 1960.”  Rebel Voices doesn’t mention this facet of Canadian suffrage. Hmmm.

Despite its omissions, Rebel Voices would make a good gift if you are looking to nudge a  pre-teen towards political awareness–it’s short, fun, and features lovely illustrations to accompany preach-free text. And being cognizant of the history of suffrage has seldom felt more important. I was born in the 1970s, and the struggles for voting rights for women often seemed like ancient history. But over the past decades, I’ve grown to realize that the school of thought which manifested as opposition to women’s suffrage never went away; many who oppose(d) women’s rights are currently flourishing in positions of power.

Vote. And if you’re in America: vote today!

***

Rebel Voices was published in November 2018 by Crocodile Books. Thanks to the publishers for the review copy!

Advertisements

Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi

Books about inclusion and valuing difference have never been more important, but how do you get kids to absorb the good stuff when they’re unwilling to be overtly educated?(Okay, maybe it’s only my kid. Anyway.) Fortunately, many kidlit authors know how to inform and persuade without permitting a hint of didacticism to creep into their storytelling. Saadia Faruqi is an author, speaker, and interfaith activist based in Houston, and her book Meet Yasmin (Picture Window Books, August 2018) features an adorable Pakistani American second grader who makes the case for inclusion over the course of four stories, all presented as a slice of her life.

While each story tackles a problem, the conflicts don’t arise from Yasmin’s cultural identity–the plots are universally relatable. Yasmin faces challenges that every kid has gone through, such as getting momentarily lost in a crowded venue, worried that her entry in an art competition isn’t good enough, feeling bored and so on. And while Yasmin draws a map or builds with K’nex, we learn about her family and her background through narrative detail.

There’s some very clever writing going here, where the cultural information is prominent but never obtrusive, and Faruqi never resorts to platitudes or heavy-handed lessons. For instance, when Yasmin is heading to the Farmer’s Market with her mom, she can “hardly wait as Mama got her hijab and her purse.” Faruqi thus demystifies and contextualizes cultural markers without ever resorting to overt explanations. And kids unfamiliar with a hijab have a handy illustration to look at too!

Yasmin is a young seven–she holds her mom’s hand as she walks to the Farmer’s Market, and puts on a fashion show with her grandma. Each story is brimming with heart and charm. The illustrations by Hatem Aly nobly hold up their end — Yasmin’s large, twinkly eyes, and her tulip nose are the very definition of winsome.

And finally: Meet Yasmin is populated by the most diverse cast ever. Yasmin’s grandpa is disabled, her teacher is white, the famous television artist Yasmin looks at for inspiration is black, her friend Emma builds a church, Principal Nguyen judges the art contest, and so on. No overt references are made to identity — it’s all winningly presented as a part of the fabric of the world Yasmin inhabits.

 

In sum, Meet Yasmin, with its charming plot, subtle message of inclusion and diversity, and flat-out adorable protagonist would be a wonderful addition to any 5-8-year-old’s reading. May this book find a home in every second-grade classroom library in America!

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk might just be in my top five middle-grade books ever. EVER. My review could have been three times as long as this piece, and I still wouldn’t have run out of good things to say about Kelly Yang’s control of her material–and her magnificent heroine.

***

(A slightly edited version of this piece appears in Asian Review of Books, Hong Kong.)

It’s 1993, and ten-year-old Mia Tang’s parents have just been employed by Mr Yao to manage Calivista Motel in Southern California. The Tangs are excited and optimistic despite all the hardships they’ve faced since immigrating to America not that long ago. In China, Mia’s parents were engineers; Mia took private piano lessons; an uncle was a doctor. In America, the Tangs are viewed primarily as poor non-white immigrants who don’t speak good English. Mia loves English, but her mother thinks she ought to focus on math, because Mia will never surpass a native English speaker; she’ll be a “bicycle among cars”.

Front Desk, Kelly Yang (Arthur A Levine Books, May 2018)

The fictional exploration of the social demotion caused by immigration is hardly new, but rarely has it been portrayed with such warmth and urgency as in Front Desk (Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2018). Mia’s parents labor endlessly cleaning rooms and managing guests, but never satisfy the “coal-hearted” owner Mr. Yao, who daily discovers creative reasons to shrink the family’s paycheck. As newly-arrived immigrants with little English and no footholds in America, the Tangs are all too easily exploited. “We’re immigrants […] Our lives are never fair,” sighs Mia’s mother. Mia insists on helping her parents by taking over the motel’s front desk. After all, how hard can it be to buzz customers in, assign a room, collect their payment, and hand over a key?

Adventures and misadventures ensue. Mia botches a wake-up call, inadvertently admits a belligerent drunk, forgets to collect keys from departing guests, and more… errors all gleefully accounted for by Mr Yao. Mia’s father believes they must accept their fate. But Mia’s friend Lupe gives her the inside scoop about America: there are two roller coasters in the country, one for the rich and one for the poor. On the rich one, “people have money, so their kids get to go to great schools. Then they grow up and make a lot of money, so their kids get to go to great schools.” And round and round they go. But on the poor roller coaster, “our parents don’t have money, so we can’t go to good schools, and then we can’t get good jobs. So then our kids can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs, and so on.” If Tangs are to jump off the bad roller coaster and onto the good, Mia must figure out America.

Mia takes charge. She placates an irate guest with a free soda, for “in America, everything had to do with money”, and cannily sets up a tip jar on the front desk. She makes customer service notes and feedback cards. When the washing machine and the cable both break down, she realizes, “[Americans] could live with dirty towels for a day or two, but they needed their TV.” She witnesses racism when the cops harass an African-American motel guest, but also glimpses the American ideal of freedom that tempted her parents to leave China—an ideal that might provide the springboard to jumping coasters.

Mia’s proudest achievement, however, is her new fluency in English (thanks to hard work and a thesaurus-dictionary). Mia writes thank you notes and an A+ school essay, and then moves on to bigger things—a reference letter for an employee, and even a convincing lawyer’s notice. She’s a Bugatti, not a bicycle; what will she achieve next with her power?

Front Desk provides (ultra-timely) social commentary on the immigrant life in America, but to me, it’s primarily a great story, with adventure, suspense, boatloads of humor, a suitably wicked villain, and an endearing heroine. And what a heroine Mia is—clever, resourceful, courageous, helpful, and, most importantly, able to view mistakes as learning opportunities. Mia is the poster child for Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory; given enough time, this ten-year-old could spin straw into gold. The writing itself is as strong as the characterization—there isn’t a whiff of cliché, and Yang never tells us the obvious; every event is mined deep for true emotion and insight. I wouldn’t delete a single line in the book.

Mia’s story is based on Kelly Yang’s own experiences running the front desk in her parents’ motel. Yang went on to Berkeley and Harvard Law, and now runs a writing program for children; color me unsurprised that her career focuses on spreading the power of the written word. Front Desk is testament to how a great story can grab you by the heart and never quite let go: a classic of the genre.

 

 

Always Anjali by Sheetal Sheth

On the morning of her seventh birthday, Anjali gets the best gift ever–a new bike! She can’t wait to ride to the fair with her BFFs Mary and Courtney.  At the fair, there’s a stall selling personalized bicycle license plates.  Mary and Courtney scoop up theirs, but Anjali’s told to make do with Angela. As a disappointed Anjali walks away, one of the older boys begins to chant “Ann-Jelly! Can I get a peanut butter an-jelly with a dot on top?”

Anjali rides home determined to change her embarrassingly uncommon, license plate-less name to Angie, but then learns that her Indian Sanskrit name means a divine gift. “To be different is to be marvelous” says mom. (“Humph” goes Anjali.) But after thinking about her situation, Anjali gets to work. With creativity, self-confidence, and a no-nonsense focus on what’s really important, she remedies the lack of license plate issue–and teaches her bully a thing or two.

My goodness, how I love Always Anjali (Bharat Babies, May 2018).  Indian American author Sheetal Sheth, whom I’ve seen in films such as The World Unseen and American Chai, takes on an issue that is both extremely personal (your name!) and also works perfectly as shorthand for the larger question of inclusion. A name needing explanation is a symbol of so much more–from being asked how you speak English to where *exactly* you’re from. This issue is close to my heart, as you can probably tell…

I also deeply appreciate how Sheth points out that it’s a systemic issue we’re dealing with–the only guilty person is the creepy kid who teases Anjali. The problem is the lack of  inclusion in cultural and social settings, when you don’t look or sound like the majority. Sheth shows that the answer lies in individual action as well as systemic change. Anjali finds a creative solution that emphatically affirms the value and magic of being different, but ideally, that fair stall would stock some diverse plates too.

Third, I’m so thankful that there’s no didactic heavy-handed message about tolerance or diversity blah blah bloop bloop. Anjali rides away from her bully after shutting him down, because “She had places to go and didn’t have time for foolishness.” Making fun of a person for being different is pretty dumb! Bullying is mean! By making the case for inclusion as a common sense argument, Sheth manages to teach without the preach.

The illustrations by Jessica Blank deserve a list of praise-worthy reasons of their own. For starters, Anjali is pictured as deep brown rather than beige or cream with a spot of tea. There is so much shadism in the South Asian community that it feels like an active design choice to have a dark skinned protagonist. Also, I love how the illustrations  incorporate cultural information subtly yet tellingly.  Anjali is an Indian American girl, and her room is a purple wonderland of soccer ball, spaceships, dinosaurs, microscope, skatergirl action figure–and a set of tablas. Look at this young tabalchi!

Yup, any kid between the ages of 5 and 8 crossing my orbit is going to have this book thrust into their arms, with a demand they begin reading right away. (Pre-readers will receive an instant storytime.) Sheth says she’s planning a series around Anjali; I can’t wait for the one where Anjali’s thirty-five and running for President.

Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen

For many years, my email tagline read “Obedient women seldom make history.” (Now I’m older and have zero edge, and so my email tagline is my LinkedIn profile.) As we know, women have always been expected to obey social rules even if the said rules diminish, confine, and humiliate them. So Ann Shen’s book about women who didn’t obey the rules and (hence) went on to change the world seemed like *exactly* my thing.

 

BadGirlsThroughoutHistory3DCover.jpg

Shen is an L.A. based illustrator and author, and Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World (Chronicle Books, 2016) is her first book. It’s a super-long listicle featuring a hundred daring women; each woman gets a write-up about her achievements and her bad-assery, and a full-page color illustration too.

The merits of this concept need no further puffing–either you fully endorse and appreciate such a book, or you have no beating heart. A++ for the idea, the timeliness, and the presentation. The book is beautifully produced, and I went through it several times just because it’s so fun to flip the pages and see the pictures. This book would make a great gift for older girls (and boys!) to teach them about figures in history who are all too often overlooked. And to teach them art. Ann Shen has more painterly talent in her eyelash than I possess in my entire being, and her illustrations are awesome (if verging on prettified).

I’m also delighted to have learned, via this book, about a couple of amazing women, like Khutulun (b. 1206), a Mongolian princess who wrestled with her suitors and defeated them all. Ching Shih led a pirate fleet known as the “Terror of South China,” and retired happily at 35 to run a gambling house. Some of the other women I learned about weren’t as impressive, but were intriguing nonetheless.

The main issue for a reader/reviewer with this book of this sort is with the inclusion–and omission– of their picks. Shen includes the caveat that the book isn’t “a definitive list of the one hundred bad girls in history”, but I have a whole bunch of issues with her selection criteria. First, I wish she’d relied less on her personal research interests and adopted more rigorous and objective standards. The book features Lilith (Adam’s wife pre-Eve in the Garden of Eden), but includes no other figures from any other (religious) myths at all. C’mon, I would totally expect to see Kali, the baddest of them all, with her skull necklace and blood-smeared sword on the front pages. As for figures from Egyptian or Mayan or Native American myths? A big Nope from this book.

Which brings me to my second issue–Shen’s choices are way too Eurocentric/Western for a book with the subheading “100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World”. There isn’t a single South Asian woman apart from Malala; South Asia is a quarter of the world’s population, y’all! No Native American women either. And as you probably guessed, Africa and South America aren’t exactly well-represented in these pages.

Also, there’s a lot of women who did something in fashion. While I don’t grudge any of the 100 women their space, I’m going out on a limb here and affirming that several didn’t seem quite as deserving as, say, Rosalind Franklin. Vandana Shiva. Mary Shelley. Zaha Hadid. Mary Anning. Rigoberta Menchu. Grace Hopper. Ela Bhatt. Caroline Herschel. Razia Sultana. Viola Desmond. Wangari Mathai. Jane Goodall. Miriam Makeba.  Ursula Le Guin. Sacagawea. Maybe I’m just too old for this book?

Also, Shen exhibits her chosen hundred in chronological order of their birth, starting with Lilith and ending with Malala, and the only way to find out whether someone is included or not is by checking the contents page for their names. There’s no alphabetical index, or even grouping by field. Do you know when Audrey Hepburn was born? How about Indira Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Prepare to manually scroll down the contents list each time. (And none of the above women are included, btw.) And half the women featured were born after 1895–that’s a very heavy skew in a book claiming to cover women “throughout history”.

Finally: I wish there’d been a bit more thought given to the write-ups. Margaret Thatcher’s description is much too kind. The entry for Rosa Parks is so determinedly non-offensive that there isn’t a smidge of emotional resonance in the read. In sum, this book is an entertaining but over-simplified look at some interesting women; for a reader in this day and age, that amounts to a bit of a missed opportunity.  I’m hoping for a second, expanded, edition–this time with less Disney and more depth.

END

Note: this book isn’t for young kids. There’s mention of rape, seduction, murder, and dismemberment…women’s history, you know.