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!

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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.

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(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.

 

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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.

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

Bend your Knees & Do your Best by Kalyani

I’ve always wondered what *really* happens in those Bangalore IT companies housing serried ranks of coder bees, and so, when Bend your Knees… crossed my radar, I was intrigued. The author’s pitch email went, “Set in the world of the (in)famous Indian IT industry, Bend your Knees is a humorous, anger-filled, slice-of-life drama about the Indian quest for ever-elusive happiness. It uses the tale of Hiranyakashyap to explore how many of us componentize that state-of-being in order to make it achievable, and how that very fact gets in the way of us achieving it.”

Debut author, brown sister, mysterious mononymous pen name, fun cover art, intriguing mythology/philosophy reference, single working woman protagonist…woo-hoo, I was in! The book seemed to offer a self-aware take on the surreality of the Indian IT industry.  Did it fulfill its promise?

Bend your Knees… is set in an IT firm in Bangalore, India, where the protagonist, 40-year-old Kalyani, works as a Senior Data Architect, having risen steadily through the ranks over the years. But now it’s retrenchment season, and the unfortunate Kalyani must fire several subordinates while quaking for her own job security. The signal for imminent unemployment is a backup email–a “mail that informed the receiver that backup software was going to be installed on the receiver’s laptop to enable the automatic backup of critical data.” Even as she’s checking her email every minute, Kalyani hits her mid-life crisis head-on–worrying her stomach cramps are cancer symptoms, figuring out her relationship with God, getting a toe-hold onto the impossible Bangalore property ladder, and managing her aging parents. Kalyani’s confidante in all her adventures is Hiranyakashyap, the Asura who wrangled a boon from God for immortality, by wording the implausible conditions of his death in the most watertight legalese possible. (Of course, God found a way to kill him anyway.)  Kalyani finds God capricious, and all-to-eager to extract a price for favors granted, and has hence learned to hedge all her requests for success or money,  depending instead on Hiranya for advice.

Then Kalyani’s manager asks her to write a thought paper on social media analytics–a maddeningly vague topic about which no-one knows anything, but for which everyone’s eager to take credit at the end. The paper rapidly becomes a hot potato for poor Kalyani, whose dealings with the corporate honchos become increasingly surreal, ultimately culminating in a wild trip to Japan.

Will  that thought-paper ever get written? Will Kalyani learn to take control of her life, or will she fail in her quest for happiness and commit suicide by rat-poison bonda?

The author Kalyani (whose identity is a secret, at least to me) is obviously well-informed about the industry, acutely observant, and possesses a nicely-developed sense of the absurd. The highlights of the book for me were the fascinating tidbits about Indian corporate culture, like the women who wear a “compliance bindi”– a dot small enough pass unnoticed, yet visible enough to appease traditionalists. There’s the flagrantly self-sacrificing woman employee who declares she’ll quit her job so the main bread-winners, aka husbands, can keep theirs.  (Proudly single Kalyani gives her the eyeball of death.) There’s the shift-the-shame rose, wherein those who’ve been laid-off give their senior managers roses; the act of giving and taking the rose is supposed to symbolize the transfer of shame between the fired and firer. Ooogh. The author perfectly captures the marriage of  capitalism’s excesses with the Indian predilection for sentimentality, and I chuckled aloud several times at the absurdity of it all.

Kalyani-the-author also has a great ear for dialogue.

“Kalyani, Jahnavi is making me to go to Dhaka!” he wailed. […]

“You mean she is asking you to go to Hyderabad.”

“No! No! That position has already been filled. Now there is another opening in Dhaka and she is making me to-“

“Asking you to go there,” I rushed in hastily.

“Not asking. Making,” he almost sobbed. “What will I eat there? I am a vegetarian!”

And now, for the negative part of my review. Surely the publishing house could have hired an experienced hand to work with an author who’s obviously great at plot, observation, and dialogue, while tightening the prose? Kalyani-the-author inclines towards detailed, adverb-laden internal monologues, and has the typical debut writer’s tendency to over-narrate. The latter is very detrimental to pacing, as any editor should know. Here’s a sample page:

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I don’t blame the author one byte (she’s a debut writer), but the editor? Well, send him that backup mail already. Kalyani’s written a book that’s heartfelt, insightful, and adds substantially to the conversation about the topic, but oh, if there’s to be a reprint, this 535-page shaggy beast needs to get on a diet. Watch it then zoom up the best-seller lists.

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Whatever planet rules kidlit featuring South Asian history must be on the ascendant; no sooner did I finish Ahimsa, about India’s independence struggle, than I heard about The Night Diary, which provides a child’s-eye view of the partition of newly independent India. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the Indian subcontinent, you’ll have heard of the 1947 Partition (with a capital P), when 14 million people were displaced as British administrators pencilled a line carving up India on the eve of the region’s independence from British rule. Hindus and Sikhs from the newly created state of Pakistan migrated to India, while Muslims from India went northwest to Pakistan; most estimates have over a million lives lost during this exchange.

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July 14, 1947 is a special day–Nisha and her twin brother Amil have just turned twelve. Their beloved family retainer Kazi gifted Nisha a silk-and-sequin-covered diary, with thick unlined paper that Nisha likes way better than lined.  Nisha decides that night is the best time to write in her diary, as “that way, no one will ask me any questions.” Oh, and the name Nisha means night. See what Hiranandani did there…

Nisha is smart, studious, silent, and surrounded by love. Her mother died giving birth to the siblings, but Nisha’s Papa, a doctor at Mirpur Khas City Hospital, her grandma Dadi, her brother and Kazi all live together in harmony with their surroundings and each other. Nisha knows their family is a little different, for her father is Hindu and Mama was Muslim, but overall it’s as happy and secure a childhood as can be. And while Papa is always busy and sometimes a bit distant, Kazi is both mother and father; through his solid, unconditional love and tutelage, shy, introverted Nisha finds she can express herself through cooking for those she loves.

But “sometimes the world as you know it just decides to become something else.” (That sentence, oh;  The Night Diary, narrated in the form of diary entries addressed to Nisha’s deceased mother, is full of sentences that make your heart hurt for Nisha.) India is to be divided into two separate countries–and Mirpur Khas will be in Pakistan. Papa, worried about the family’s safety,  keeps the children out of school, but then a gang breaks into their house, and Kazi is attacked and injured. Very quickly, the children learn that grown-ups don’t have all the answers and that adults can be scared too.  They also learn all about the awful necessity of taking a side–Hindu or Muslim. Heartsick, Nisha writes, “Me, Amil, Papa, Dadi, and Kazi. That’s it. That’s the only side I know how to be on.”

Papa talks of moving to the new India, but all Nisha wants is the old one–the one that was her home. When on August 14, 1947, the ground she’s standing on is India no more, the family packs their belongings,  planning to cross the border by train. It’s wrenching, leaving behind almost everything for the unknown people who’ll occupy their home, but it’s unbearable that they must go without Kazi, who, as a Muslim, must stay in Pakistan… Then news arrives that the  people are being slaughtered on the border trains (in both directions). As rioters draw closer to Mirpur Khas, the family flees on foot, planning to stop at Nisha’s mother’s (estranged) brother’s house, and then make their way to India.

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Nisha now has to grow up in a hurry; Dadi warns her that she must cover herself with a shawl, and not trust strange men. After walking fifteen miles a day, the family sleeps in the open, with a fire to keep animals away.  Food is scarce, water even scarcer, and tempers fray as the stress of survival eats away at the family. As always, the question of her mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage hangs over Nisha; will people always hate one half of her?

The refugee life is one where the ordinary seems like a fairy tale. “Nothing was real. We didn’t have neighbors. We didn’t have a home. It was in-between living.”  In their time of crisis, everything non-essential is gradually pared away until all that’s left is the fear they will die of starvation/dehydration, or be murdered by rioters, before making it to Rashid Uncle’s house. Will they reach India with their family unit–and their faith in humanity– intact?

One of The Night Diary’s most noteworthy accomplishments lies in the way it subtly encourages young readers to connect this slice of history to contemporary events. In Hiranandani’s hands, the Partition isn’t just something that happened in a remote part of South Asia long ago, but a terrible lesson on how quickly things can go to pieces among people who’ve lived in amity for centuries. The diary format provides a peculiarly intimate and intense account of Nisha’s life, thus enabling middle-graders to understand the experience of refugees all over the world today.  And silent, not-so-brave Nisha’s journey to courage will stay with the younger set even if some forget the specifics of the politics of this particular story.

The Night Diary is built around the author’s own family history–Veera Hiranandani (who happens to be half Jewish and half Hindu) based the story on her father, who, with his parents and siblings, travelled across the border from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur in India. As she writes in her Author’s Note, “My father’s family made the journey safely, but lost their home […]and had to start over in an unfamiliar place as refugees. I wanted to understand more about what my relatives went through which is a big reason why I wrote this book.” And yes, Hiranandani provides a nuanced take on the political aspects–there’s no blaming  any side or people or religion. “All those in power wanted peaceful relations between the groups, but disagreed on the best way to make that happen.” If you’re looking to introduce your middle grader to this slice of history about India’s struggle with British colonial rule, you couldn’t do better than to begin with Ahimsa and then go on to The Night Diary. 

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The Night Diary was published March 2018 by Dial Books. My thanks to the author and the publisher for the review copy!