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.

TigerBoy.jpg

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/.

Five fun novels for the 9-12 group

Summer demands that you toss aside gravitas-lit in favor of lighter reads. Here are five of the best from my summer’s Middle Grade haul.

1. Joanne Levy’s Small Medium at Large (Bloomsbury, July 2012) gets my vote for Miss Congeniality; it’s impossible not to like this delightful book. After being struck by lightning, twelve-year-old Lilah Bloom discovers she can hear ghosts. Lilah, who is cheerful and nice and funny, must sort out her divorced father’s non-existent love life, fructify her crush on Andy (whose father’s ghost talks to her), co-ordinate her first ever bra purchase, and more. Perhaps ghostly intervention will make it all easier for her? Or not;  ghosts come in different varieties, some nuttier than others.

Lilah’s world is satisfyingly idyllic– there are no bad guys, just the occasional misguided girl or spirit, and the adults are mostly obliging and understanding. (It’s unrealistic, yes, but  hey, we’re talking about a girl communicating with spirits anyway.)  Levy has a relaxed yet polished style, which, along with her warm sense of humour, makes for addictive reading. I have nothing but awe for such apparently effortless prose, the sort that makes the unwise believe writing is easy. I’m obsessively checking Levy’s website for tidings of a sequel, as you will on finishing this one.

2. I love Eva Ibbotson’s work, but I’d somehow missed one dog And His boy, which was published (by Scholastic) in 2011, the year after her death. Hal lives with his materialistic parents in a posh house in London, and has an Xbox and iPod and Roboquad,  but all he’s ever wanted is a dog. His mother however can’t bear the thought of messing up her white carpet and artistically-raked gravel. When Hal gets a white terrier named Fleck for his birthday, he’s ecstatic, but learns his parents have secretly rented Fleck just for the weekend. He decides to run away with Fleck to his grandparents in Scotland, and joining his adventures are other dogs from the pet rental agency, and a friend Pippa.

Hals’s journey has more than a touch of  The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but this one is classic Ibbotson–her sympathy for those who aren’t focused on material success and her concomitant scorn for those who prize appearances above humanity, and her championship of animals and all small vulnerable beings will be familiar to those who’ve read Which Witch or Island of the Aunts or her romances (any of her books, really). Beautiful writing, with so much heart in it.

3. The Silver Bowl (HarperCollins, 2011) by Diane Stanley: The handsome young Prince Alaric lives in the palace of the King of Westria, where Molly is a scullery maid assigned to polishing the silver. Molly has visions, but they haven’t bothered her in the recent past, until one day, she handles a ceremonial silver bowl which sends her a vision of a curse leading to the death of the royal family. Molly along with her friend Tobias (“Donkey boy”) must save Alaric, find a way to break the curse and restore the throne to the rightful prince.

Two things made this book stand out for me. One, the intelligence and ease of the writing–for instance, Stanley has her characters makes mistakes not to further the plot, but because it is in keeping with their personas.  Two, Stanley subverts many tropes commonly found in such fictions. Not everyone wants to be a prince(ss). Beauty isn’t always equated with worth.  The heroine isn’t afraid to air her  intelligence–and the prince doesn’t mind asking for and accepting advice. Great messages all, and the book isn’t message-y at all!

4.  Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince (Scholastic, April 2012) has one of those colossal plot twists that demands you re-read past 200 pages so you can better appreciate the author’s gift for utterly hoodwinking the reader. Megan Whalen Turner  has always been my champion for this sort of thing, but Nielsen comes close.

Three orphans  are chosen by a nobleman as potential candidates to impersonate a missing, presumed-to-be-dead prince. What starts out as a weird competition escalates into war when the three realize that once a prince is chosen, the remaining two boys will be killed. The story is narrated from the viewpoint of one of the children, the rebellious Sage who constantly questions authority (need I say more about loving this character?) The pace is stupendous, the plotting artful, and all characters are richly drawn. This one is the first part of The Ascendance Trilogy, but fear not! The loose ends will keep you salivating, but the story is complete in itself.

5. Vanished by Sheela Chari : Do scroll down to the post below for more details about young Neela’s adventures involving a mysteriously vanishing veena!