Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins has a godly talent for taking on big issues in unfamiliar settings and turning it all into absorbing, magical Middle Grade stories. I admired Bamboo People, and adored Secret Keeper, and I’m firmly in the love end of the like—>love scale for Tiger Boy (2015). This novel tackles  profound moral dilemmas involving integrity, ambition, and sacrifice, all in Perkins’s trademark preach-free manner. And it’s set in the Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands that’s home to a unique mangrove forest, all of which straddles the southern part of Bangladesh and a small bit of eastern India.

Landsat 7 image of Sundarbans, released by NASA Earth Observatory , from Wikipedia.

The Sunderbans (“beautiful forest” in Bengali) is home to the Bengal tiger, whose population in recent years has dwindled so much that it’s considered an endangered species. The low numbers are partly due to deforestation and the rigours of a shared habitat with villagers, but mostly due to poaching for illegal trade in body parts and skin. Yep, we humans mostly suck.

Young Neel lives in near-poverty in an island village in the Sunderbans. He’d rather be swimming than studying for the scholarship exam for admission to a prestigious Calcutta boarding school. Oh, the English and Bangla exam portions are fine, but Neel (like a certain other young protagonist) has met his Waterloo in geometry. Moreover, he doesn’t want to go away to the city–he loves his family and his village. “The sights, sounds and smells of the Sunderbans were as much a part of him as his dark skin and curly black hair.” But his father, although a skilled carpenter, is short of work, and Neel’s scholarship (and his subsequent professional career) could be the ticket to a better life for his family.

Just as the headmaster catches Neel playing truant, big news comes their way–a tiger cub has escaped from the nature reserve nearby, and it’s hiding in their village! Neel is immediately aware of the danger–the mother will come in search of her cub. And there’s an additional menace–a rich city dweller named Gupta, who’s been buying up land in the forest, often forcibly evicting the occupants and wantonly cutting down rare Sundari trees, is searching for the cub too. Gupta is offering a large bounty for the tiger–and it’s not out of altruism.

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Neel and his sister Rupa (who would have been deemed an awesome scholarship candidate if she were but a boy, you know?) set out in secret to search for the baby tiger. Since this book is called Tiger Boy, you know that Neel (aided by geometry, no less!) finds and rescues the cub. His family could sorely use the reward money for his mother’s medicine, but Neels knows he must return the cub to the forest rangers. Can he avoid getting his father into trouble, dodge Gupta and his evil henchmen, and hand the tiger over to the rangers — and pass that terrifying geometry exam?

Since this is an MG novel, everything works out, but not once does Perkins sacrifice nuance, and the ending features a hugely satisfying yet unforced tying-up of loose ends. I really relished the elegant plotting, and I love her characters. As always, they’re mostly helpful, good-hearted people doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, and if they behave less than well, it’s usually due to ignorance or duress, rather than spite. And yes, it’s hinted that greedy Gupta gets his comeuppance. The text is accompanied by lovely illustrations from Jamie Hogan.

Much incidental information about tigers, conservation and the Sunderbans has been gently infused into this fast-paced, gripping novel, and there’s also a substantial afterword that includes plenty of learning resources. Tiger Boy won the 2016 South Asia Book Award for Grades 5 and Under, as well as whole other bunch of prizes; color me unsurprized. Check out more about the book at http://www.tigerboy.org/.

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This Truck has Got to be Special by Anjum Rana, Sameer Kulavoor, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan

When Tara Books asked if I’d be interested in reviewing any of their new releases, I picked This Truck has Got to be Special, judging the book solely by the explosion of color and glitter on its cover. And oh, what a smart choice it was. TThGtbS is the story of Pakistani truck driver Chinar Gul, who’s finally paid off the loan for his vehicle; what better way to celebrate than having his truck newly decorated by his artist friend Zarrar? But not with any random designs in beige or oatmeal (or the more daring forest green or burgundy). Nope, this truck will be special.

(The gold bits on the cover are reflective, and super shiny.)

Author Anjum Rana, an interior designer by profession, writes on her website “…Pakistani Truck art is not only a legitimate and distinct folk art, but also represents the values and aspirations of vast majorities of Pakistanis”. The exuberant colors, the abundance of motifs, and the lavish application of glitter are all constituents of a deliberately flamboyant style that’s been honed over the years (some say it dates from the 1950s). Rana does a wonderful job of capturing Chinar Gul’s excitement and anticipation as he waits for his precious truck to be painted, and it’s all depicted without a hint of patronage.

Chinar Gul drives his truck along the Karakoram Highway, aka the Pakistan China friendship highway, aka the highest paved road in the world. It’s a tough life, albeit leavened with camaraderie with fellow drivers, and moments of stunning scenic beauty. As a poor young boy whose family could not send him to school, Chinar Gul worked as a truck cleaner (a”cleander” in the local dialect). When old enough to get a license, he began driving his boss’s truck,  becoming a driver-cleander-mechanic all in one. And now, after 30 years of being on the road, and driving his truck for 5 years, he finally owns the truck outright. The truck is his home; painting it makes it welcoming, “like a  decorated bride who is waiting for you at home”, says Gul.

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The progress on the truck’s decorations runs parallel to the story of Chinar Gul’s life. The truck artist, Zarrar, is a truck painting ustaad (maestro), who, like Chinar Gul, began as a lowly assistant at a very young age, but who now has complete control over his art. Chinar Gul doesn’t tell him what to paint on the truck, other than two requests–on the front, the words “Mashallah’, the name of God, to keep the driver safe, and on the back, “Pappu yaar tung na karr”– an admonition to those driving behind him which translates into Pappu, Man [dude!], don’t hassle me. Someone on Etsy make a decal, quick.

After much deliberation, Zarrar decides to paint partridges and mountains on the side panels, while the wheels and the bumper will be decorated with reflector tape (chammak patti), disco style. The cabin ceiling will be painted too, and the seats will be clad in multi-colored velvet, with applique lace and gold braid. The large painting on the rear of the truck is a joint decision requiring much deliberation. Chinar Gul’s wife asked for the portrait of her favorite singer, his older son for his cricket hero, and his younger son wanted an airplane. Read the book to find out what the final choice was 🙂

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Trucks on the Gilgit Skardu road. (Pic credit : By Hollern1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40240457)

The illustrations bring alive the setting– here’s Chinar Gul’s wife and children fishing for rainbow trout in Swat, and then there’s Gilgit’s bustling market, with a signboard for “Mobile Repair” cheek-by-jowl with soaring minarets. The truck designs are exuberant and fun–there’s much use of hot pink and fuchsia and parrot green, along with plenty of gold. And the story itself is at least as appealing as the visuals, with Rana’s respect and affection for this art form imbuing every page of the book. In all, I was struck by what a lovely team effort TThGtbS represents, with two Pakistani truck painters, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan, providing the truck designs, a Pakistani writer Anjum Rana working with a Mumbai-based illustrator Sameer Kulavoor for the story, and a London-based graphic designer pulling it all together. Quite fitting then, that this California-based blogger loved it to bits.

Books for young readers

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras has been praised for bringing the “Edwardian age deliciously to life”, but even if you don’t give a damn for Edward or his age, you should read this book. Geras has captured the child’s eye-view of life as a time of vulnerability and miracles with remarkable accuracy, and the utterly convincing voice of the young narrator is nothing  short of magical.

Apricots at Midnight is the story of Aunt Pinny’s girlhood, encapsulated in the patches on her quilt. Aunt Pinny (that’s Penelope Sophia Pintle to you and me) was born in London back in 1904, and began to make the quilt when she was “old enough to hold a needle”, at about five or six.  Sixty-odd years later,  the quilt is now on the guest bed where young Laura sleeps when staying with her aunt while her parents are abroad. Pinny tells the child bedtime stories about the history of the quilt’s patches, and so we hear about Pinny’s mother getting delayed while picking her up from school, about a visit to a cousin in the country, about a meeting with an army Major. All ordinary stories, sans flash-bangs of plot twists and revelations, but so saturated with quiet beauty that you’ll close this book with an ache in your heart for what it means to be very young.  Get this for the sensitive/odd/bookish child in your life–she will hold it close and cherish it for ever and ever.

Oh, and do check out Geras’s website–what an interesting person she is! And she’s written over ninety books for children, teens and adults. Ninety. Ninety. Ninety.

Note:  The book seems to be out of print (WHY?), but you should move heaven and earth to find it. I picked mine up at my library’s bi-annual used book sale, and my heartfelt thanks to the DeRuyter/Diletti family (who wrote their name on the first page) for kindly donating their copy.

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When I heard about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s children’s fantasy The Conch Bearer (2003), I was quite thrilled.  PoC characters! Indian setting! By an award-winning writer! Divakaruni has won the Pushcart Prize and the Pen Oakland award (amongst others) for her adult fictions, and while I’ve sometimes found myself at odds with her prose and her positions, I have complete faith in her storytelling abilities.

Twelve-year-old Anand works at a tea-stall in modern-day Calcutta, earning a few miserable rupees each day for his mother and younger sister. His father has gone missing in Dubai, and it’s fallen to Anand to support his family.  One day, Anand meets the mysterious grey-bearded Abadhyatta who tells him about a special valley in the Himalayas that houses a brotherhood of wizard healers, who take care of a magic conch. The conch,  stolen by its former Keeper Surabhanu has recently been retrieved, and now must be returned to the valley.  Abadhyatta asks Anand to accompany him on the journey home, as the conch seems to have a special affinity for him. Joining them is a young girl, Nisha.

But the conch has an energy that alerts Surabhanu of its presence when used.  And careful, merely saying the evil one’s name out loud attracts the finger of his attention that periodically sweeps across the city. The conch has a mind of its own and carries its own dangers within–for instance, when Anand holds it, he feels a moment of terrible rage when Abadhyatta takes it back. And when Abhyadatta  goes missing in the early part of their adventure, danger dogs the children along the way. There’s the ape Grishan who speaks half-human language wants the treasure for his master. There’s a mountain rains down boulders and doesn’t let them pass. The only source of help for Anand and Nisha  is a squirrel-like creature Nisha befriends.

Let me get it out of the way–Divakaruni is treading very familiar ground (much of it of the Middle Earth strata) in this book, and the plot feels very derivative at times. The big question: do the India elements juice up the story enough to make it seem fresh?

Divakaruni’s writing is very fluid, and all the technical aspects of the novel are top-notch, but I’d guess that this book will not hold adults who’ve read their  reasonable share of fantasy. As someone who’s had a surfeit of hero-coming-of-age-during-a-quest narratives, the book was too thin to tip me into praise. But The Conch Bearer was written for children, and I think ten-year-olds will, for the most part, dive in eagerly.

What I did find fascinating was the way Divakaruni roots her story in Indian myths–there are some clever intersections that I wish she’d explored in more detail. The squirrel-as-helper, for instance, is a well-loved character in the Ramayana, and I’ve always loved how this myth demonstrates that the humblest of animals deserves compassion and respect. The magic conch itself is said to trace its origins back to the Mahabharata. Divakaruni writes that the Aswini Kumars, physicians to the gods, gave the conch to their sons Nakul and Sahadev, the youngest of the five Pandavas of the Mahabharata. When the two brothers used the conch to bring back the dead at the Battle of Kurukshetra, the conch was taken away from them as punishment. Divakaruni has tapped into an immensely rich seam here, and how I wish she had done more with it.

Note: The Conch Bearer is the first part of a trilogy, but works just fine as a stand-alone novel.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes

Most Hindus have a favorite god or ten, and chances are Ganesha will top the list. He’s worshiped as the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings, the god of intellect and wisdom, and he’s invoked as a patron of letters during writing sessions, and as the god of arts and sciences. And he’s particularly appealing to kids–he rides a mouse and is fond of sweets and has an elephant’s head, and has plenty of fun adventures. (Yes, theology is notably absent in my childhood memories of Ganesha.)

I requested Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth for review from Chronicle Books (Raincoast Books in Canada) because I liked Sanjay Patel’s previous book Ramayana–Divine Loophole. Patel is an animator at Pixar, and favors unvarnished text and clean-edged colorful illustrations that are utterly devoid of the soft-focus sentimentality that tends to permeate this sort of narrative. And yup, I asked for this book because I’ve been  searching for kidlit that explains religion without being all pompous and preachy and exceptionalist and smug and superior, and oh, panning for gold in my kitchen sink would have been a more productive quest by far. If you tend to answer your child’s questions about god(s) with a wary “Well, some people believe…”, you know what I’m talking about.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is based on the myth in which Ganesha is asked (by Vyasa) to record the verses of the epic poem Mahabharata. When Ganesha’s pen breaks, the resourceful god breaks off his tusk and uses it as a stylus to keep writing.  There are a number of versions of this story–it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that each Hindu family cherishes its particular oral history of this myth; my preferred interpretation is the one where the tusk is said to symbolize that no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of learning. Patel however changes some major plot points–this book is not a re-telling as much as a re-invention of the tale. Those looking to take offence will be amply satiated.

The young Ganesha, cruising with his magical mouse (“Mr. Mouse”) searching for sweets, finds a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Laddoo. He pops the shiny blue treat into his mouth… and breaks his tusk. He tries to fix the tusk back on, but failing, hurls it away in frustration, whereupon it hits an old man walking past. That’s Vyasa the poet, and he asks if Ganesha will be his scribe for a special poem so long that “all the pens in this world would break before it was done.” Ganesha agrees to try out his tusk for the job.

(All book images from Sanjay Patel’s website Gheehappy.)

The tusk works great, so Ganesha sits down to record the Mahabharata, getting up only one hundred thousand verses later. And there’s still some laddoos waiting for him.

What a  sweet little story! I really enjoyed the ending (which reminded me of Max’s warm supper in Where the Wild Things Are) and the absence of a moral (well, “Don’t eat jawbreakers” doesn’t qualify IMO). The portrayal of the Ganesha as a child first and god second makes kids connect with the story in an elemental way–Ganesha is shown jumping rope, dancing to music, and ringing bells with his trunk.  The illustrations are superb–they’re drenched with color, and they beautifully reconcile traditional Indian motifs with computer-generated graphics. And while I did have context for the myth, my son has never heard of the Mahabharata, and he enjoyed the book because “it was scary when the tusk broke, but I like that the tusk helped him draw.”

Patel says the plot has been changed to “develop an original and, we hope, fun picture book” but I’m pretty sure many (Indian) readers will ask why he  didn’t stick to the original myth (the jawbreaker laddoo episode has been inserted purely to ramp up the entertainment quotient for kids). Well,  I understand the question and sympathize to some extent, but I personally think re-inventions and re-interpretations are true to the spirit of the religion–strict adherence to a text isn’t a characteristic of the Hindusim I know.  Look at this statue I found during a google image search for Ganesha:

That’s Ganesha with a computer, and his mouse is the computer mouse. I’ve seen statues of Ganesha playing cricket, strumming a guitar, holding a laptop and so on, and I think these are respectful yet fun, serving as an acknowledgement of Ganesha’s ubiquity in everyday Indian life. I’d recommend Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth to atheists, believers, the confused and the indifferent and oh yes, to all varieties of kids.

Note: For further reading on this topic, you’d probably do well to check out The Broken Tusk by the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami.  I haven’t read it (yet), but you can’t go wrong with her work.

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

Were he alive, Dahl would be celebrating his 96th birthday today.  Events galore at www.roalddahlday.info, and here’s a lovely episode from Letters of Note for you to enjoy.

“One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1989, with encouragement and much-needed help from her father, a 7-year-old girl named Amy decided to send something to Roald Dahl. Taking inspiration from her favourite book, The BFG, and using a combination of oil, coloured water and glitter, Amy sent the author a very fitting and undeniably adorable gift: one of her dreams, contained in a bottle. ”

Go to Letters of Note to read Dahl’s reply. He wasn’t a perfect man, but his response to this child is perfect in every way.

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The London Review of Books reviewed George’s Marvellous Medicine back in 1981 in a piece titled “Sweet Porn”. The LRB blog has re-posted an except today under the title “Emmanuelle and the Chocolate Factory”. I don’t subscribe to the LRB, so I can’t read the full piece (for which I am mostly thankful), but here’s an excerpt.

For pre-pubertal Westerners, sweets fill the vacuum later to be occupied by sex. It is unnerving to watch an otherwise decent child being temporarily demoralised (in the literal sense of being morally corrupted) by a desire for sweets as an otherwise decent adult may be by sexual need. In both cases, the overwhelming lust for immediate sensual gratification destroys habitual scruples, yet is itself tainted by a guilty awareness that fulfilment may collapse into satiety, shame and physical discomfort. The whole animal being is involved. A three-year-old with a chocolate-smeared face can wear the hangdog look of a man whose wife surprises him in adultery… Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is thus, in effect, a piece of soft pornography, with Charlie in the Emmanuelle role: ‘as the rich warm creamy chocolate ran down his throat into his empty tummy, his whole body from head to toe began to tingle with pleasure, and a feeling of intense happiness spread over him.’

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Get rid of that icky feeling by visiting writer Kristen den Hartog’s lovely mother-daughter reading journal Blog of Green Gables, where she details their “mission to read all of [Dahl’s] kids’ books in a row.” Her post on the BFG is doubly interesting because the protagonist of Hartog’s last novel And Me Among Them is a girl giant.

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Over at the Huffington Post, there’s a juicy collection of his funniest quotes from his children’s books.

“I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m going to ignore your advice.”

And and and

“And Charlie, don’t forget about what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted. He lived happily ever after.”

The End.

Bookslut interview with Sheela Chari

When Neela agrees to bring her veena (an Indian stringed instrument that is an older and much bulkier sister of a sitar) to her sixth grade Instruments Around the World unit in her Boston school, she’s chiefly worried about performing in public without embarrassing herself. But then Neela’s four-foot veena, packed in its special wheeled case, vanishes while she’s taking shelter from the rain during her walk back home from school. The veena has a history of disappearing and reappearing; could it be cursed? How can an eleven-year-old track it down, especially if it might have resurfaced in India? And does the dragon carving on the instrument mean something special?

Sheela Chari’s middle-grade (MG) novel Vanished (Disney Hyperion, 2011) is a rollicking mystery that seamlessly incorporates multicultural elements into the fast-paced plot. Vanished was chosen as the 2012 Children’s Literature Honor book by APALA, and was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award. Chari, who was born in Bangalore and moved to America when she was three, lives in Boston with her family.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Chari on this month’s Bookslut.

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“Before Vanished, my writing was generally literary, and without a lot of action. When I decided to work on a children’s mystery novel, I had to deal with a very clear story arc. Which was great for me! I learned how to structure my novel, how to space out clues, and how to make my chapter endings more urgent and page-turning. I was very conscious that a middle grade reader might get impatient with a lot of narrative and description. Essentially, I learned to read my writing like a reader, instead of as a writer alone. If I ever write an adult novel, I will apply a lot of what I learned to the writing of it as well.

[…]

I also wanted to create a certain kind of immigrant on paper — an Indian-American girl who was comfortable enough in her skin that the thought most immediate on her mind wasn’t “How do I fit in?” but “How do I solve this mystery?” A story about such a girl couldn’t focus on all that made her different.”

Check out the rest of the interview here.

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Vanished was one of my favourite reads of the year, and I urge you to pick up a copy now! And visit do Chari’s website at http://www.sheelachari.com/

I am cucumber, hear me roar: Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

I always thought I’d be one of those mothers who set a balanced meal on the table and felt her job was done, but in this too, as with so much else about parenting,  I’d underestimated the intensity of my emotional investment. Eating doesn’t come easy to my 5-year-old, who sees mealtimes as a detour on the way to fun things. My solution is to lie (a lot). My son has been hoaxed and coaxed into trying different foods with the promise of superpowers (carrots give you x-ray eyes) and brain function enhancement (okra makes you better at math). Also:  variably-colored poo (beetroot).

So I was very delighted to chance upon Fast Food–a picture book showing that veggies and fruit can be fun, fun, fun.

Fast Food features fruit and vegetables artfully carved into different forms of transport–blimps and bicycles and submarines and all things between.  Given the natural affinity between kids and fast-moving objects, this concept is an obvious winner. While my son loved the banana airplane and the radish Santa on his red pear sleigh (Santa’s beard is made with cauliflower), I was very taken with  the snow pea skateboard, the orange wheelchair, and the okra rocket zooming towards an onion-ringed Saturn.  None of the ingredients have been colored or tinkered with in any way apart from some judicious carving, and little ones will have great fun recognizing the fruits and vegetable that make up these pictures.

There’s very little text, and what is there is in clear unfussy rhymes, with a calm good sense shining through each page.

“Sometimes you’ll want to travel far./Maybe then you’ll choose a car.
It might be wise if more of us/would ride together in a bus!”

And I love, love  Freymann’s gentle, playfully composed sculptures. Here’s a big yellow school bus.

This post obviously cries out for more images, but I can’t find any  via google search, so you’ll have to go to amazon.com and check the “Click to Look Inside” link to see more. And they are all awesome, from scallion man (who actually looks rather like Fido Dido)  to red pepper fire truck guys. Freymann is fiendishly talented–give him a putty knife and some eggplant and potato, and you’d probably have an edible Mona Lisa in an hour. He’s authored 7 other books featuring carved food, and if they are anything like this one, I’m in for a treat. Oh, if only all fast food were Fast Food.