The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami (and a giveaway!)

Update: this giveaway is now closed.

When eleven-year-old Dini Kumaran learns that her family must move from Maryland to a small town in South India (her doctor mom got a grant), she’s pretty upset. But upon reaching Swapnagiri (which translates to “Dream Mountain”), Dini hears that her favorite Bollywood star, the beautiful and intelligent and courageous Dolly Singh, is currently staying in the same town. Dini knows that their meeting is ordained; she just has to figure out the minor details. And if grown-up problems plague Dolly, well, Dini has a plan to sort that out too.

It’s my turn today for the blog tour for acclaimed children’s writer Uma Krishnaswami’s gentle, funny, and very wise MG novel The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Here’s the thing: I fell in love with this book, and like most instances of love, it was hard for me to explain exactly why. I drafted and redrafted my review, thought of structure and metaphor and language (all superb), but I had to look deeper, till I realized that this book zinged to the heart of my memories of growing up in India. So, review-schmeview;  instead, here’s The Grand List of Everything Specially Indian about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

The Sound Thing. Indian sounds aren’t the same as North American sounds. Cars don’t honk but go bebeep, bebeep (and never stop). A Canadian machine would probably cough to a standstill; Indian thingamajigs breakdown with a KREER! KOOCH! KRAAR! And have you heard certain Indian men sneeze? They don’t atishoo, they go oh-aah-bushku. Uma is a genius at Sunno-sunnoing the noises of India, and you’re going to have so much fun sounding them out, especially when riding on public transport.

The Name Thing. The protagonist, Nandini, is called Nandu by her parents, when she’d rather go by Dini. “In her parents’ time, in the last century, that was how you shortened […] Nandini.” So, until I read this book, I thought I was the only one who had analyzed Indian names and concluded that the default shortening mechanism was to tack a “u” to the first three or four letters. So a Sonia becomes Sonu, a Deepak becomes Deepu, and, um, Niranjana becomes Niru. If you grew up in India, you’ve fought hard and lost this battle before you were eight. And somehow, the name followed you through university and across continents, and now, your spouse calls you that when he’s feeling uppish.

The Shoes (or lack thereof) Thing. When I saw the illustration of Dolly Singh dancing in flip-flops, my heart did a little authenticity leap. Yes! In a climate and culture which renders footwear mostly optional, slippers are de rigueur, and I cannot count the number of South Indian weddings I’ve attended where women clad in silk saris with (real) gold embroidery, with diamonds and emeralds erupting all over their bodies, wear flip-flops styled by Dollarama (aka the Bata Hawaii chappal) on their feet.

Say hello to Bollywood star Dolly Singh, charmingly illustrated by Abigail Halpin.

The Bollywood in Context Thing.  I’d probably watched all of five Bollywood films when I turned thirteen, but growing up in India, it was impossible to avoid the songs. Indian music was divided into classical and film, with nothing betwixt or between, and film songs were either Sad or Happy. When Dini criticizes Dolly’s latest film for having only sad songs, well, it could have been me speaking twenty years ago.  And Dini’s parents’ uncomprehending but cheerful acceptance of their daughter’s fondness for Bollywood is pretty much where I am now. Finally! a book where Bollywood evokes nuanced reactions that go beyond the distaste/fascination duality.

The Happiness Thing. People who are mostly cheerful and obliging. Loving parents. Minor perils. Small but intense joys. A dash of surreality. The Grand Plan… is an unapologetic celebration of a happy Indian childhood, and I am so grateful that Uma has given us this reality amongst all the other (mostly dismal) realities of India that have populated my reading thus far. While the book is indeed filled with magical coincidences and fairy-tale resolutions, at its heart, I see it an affirmation of the ordinary child, who, powered by little other than good intentions and doughty resolution, can shape things positively. My own childhood reading was devoid of such Indian protagonists, and I am so delighted that my nine-year-old niece in Delhi, who loves Ramona Quimby and Judy Moody to bits, can now read about Dini Kumaran.

And…a giveaway! If you would like to get a copy of this book, please leave a comment on this post saying so, and one commenter will receive a copy. Please note that shipping is restricted to Canada/USA; the giveaway ends June 30.

Update: The two winners are

1. Sheryl McFarlane Tilley

2. Kamini @ Tales of South India

A tree grows in Bangalore

(This review  appeared  in The Asian Review of Books on June 20, 2010.)

Out of the way! Out of the way! is a picture book offering a trifecta of intelligent story appealing to both children and adults, rythmic text begging to be read aloud, and eye-catching illustrations drenched in color.

Somewhere in India, a plant taking root in the middle of a village path catches the attention of a young boy, who looks after it even though people keep asking him to move out of the way. With time, the path becomes a road that curves around a tree now big enough to make people move out of its way. Or perhaps not, for the tree becomes a sanctuary for animals and people alike, offering a place of stillness amidst the roil of urban life.

Countries (like India) which look upon industrialization as the key to poverty alleviation often consider environmental concerns a rich people’s luxury. But tree and road make room for each other in this tale, showing that the development imperative may indeed be amicably reconciled with the conservation movement. Yes, Krishnaswami’s clever resolution gave me much pleasure–almost as much as the bullocks “nodding their heads, one-two, one-two,” even as the bullock-cart man cried “Out of the way! Out of the way!” That jaunty line occurs on almost every page, and as was the case with my three-year-old son, I too found it very hard to stop once I got started on the refrain. There really should be an earworm alert on the cover, Umas!

This book’s abstract concepts make it suitable for the suggested reading age of 6+, but the illustrations are saturated with the sort of detail that preschoolers love. Uma Krishnaswamy’s (y, not i) extravagantly imagined scenes compliment the minimalist text perfectly. The young plant is surrounded by vignettes from a village life—bullocks waving rebellious tails, a temple tower, an earthenware pitcher near a string bed. As the plant grows into a sapling, urbanization creeps on to the page in the shape of motorcycles and street lights and TV antennas. Finally, as death-defying autos dart through gobs of exhaust fumes towards high-rise towers, there sits in the middle of the chaos The Tree, grown from tender babyhood to a stately abundance of blood-red fruit.

It’s all quite lovely, and even the youngest readers will find great pleasure in following a kite’s trailing string across the page, or spotting the mango falling from the vendor’s basket into the gleeful cupped hands of a young girl.

In a land populated by sweet bunnies riding school buses towards glittering rainbows, Out of the way! Out of the way! is like a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, it takes a tree.


A note on the name of this post. The title of course references a much-beloved classic, but I chose it for another reason as well. Bangalore, once a quiet place, is now developing at a frantic pace, careless of everything but the call to glory.  Uma’s story is sort of my wish for the city that I love.

This post is part of Uma Krishnaswami’s blog tour for the launch of her book.  I don’t normally participate in these tours, but I’m acquainted with Uma in the virtual world, where she has never failed to impress me with her wisdom and her generosity with her time and knowledge. And of course, her mad prose skillz.  So I’m honored to be part of this tour, and I hope you’ll check out the other tour posts.

Monday 21 June:
Educating Alice
Saffron Tree

Tuesday 22 June:
Chicken Spaghetti
Through the Tollbooth

Wednesday 23 June:
Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind

Thursday 24 June:
Brown Paper
Plot Whisperer

Friday 25 June:
Notes from New England
Saffron Tree (featuring an interview with Uma Krishnaswamy)

Saturday 26 June:
Scribbly Katia
Jacket Knack (Carol Brendler)

Sunday 27 June:
Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database
The Drift Record


Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrations by Uma Krishnaswamy

Tulika Publishers, India,  2010

Genre: Picture Books

Writers Against Racism: Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami is the India-born, New Mexico-based author of several widely-praised children’s books (Chachaji’s Cup, The Broken Tusk ).  She talks about how racism has impacted her writing:

“A long time ago, I left a writing group in tears when someone in the group suggested I assume a pseudonym and write stories about “regular” kids. As if my name, and the South Asian kids in my stories were, you know, irregular! And I had to wonder, when I began to submit work to publishers in the early 90’s, whether there was some rule that people from my part of the world could only be shown as illiterate and barefoot-and far away.”

This interview is part of Amy Bowllan’s excellent blog series “Writers Against Racism” on School Library Journal.  Other South Asian YA authors Bowllan has interviewed include Neesha Meminger (whose YA book I’m currently reviewing), Mitali Perkins, and Rukhsana Khan.

You can read the complete author interview here on Bowllan’s Blog.