Grandma and the Great Gourd retold by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters
This picture book is a retelling of a Bengali folktale. Grandma was invited by her daughter to visit her on the other side of the jungle. Before Grandma traveled there, she left the responsibility for her garden and home with her two loyal dogs. On her way across the jungle, Grandma met a series of hungry animals: a fox, a bear and a tiger. To each, she explained that she is very thin now, but will be plumper when she returns from seeing her daughter, so they let her go. Grandma had a good time at her daughter’s home, eating lots of food and visiting. But eventually, she had to return home to her dogs and her garden. But how was she to get back? That’s where the giant gourds in her daughter’s garden came in, and you will just have to read the book to find out how.
Divakaruni has taken a traditional folktale and left it wonderfully traditional. The story reads like an oral tradition, filled with repetition, small descriptions, and a story that just keeps on rolling forward like a gourd. She includes noises in the story as well, the khash-khash of lizards slithering over dry leaves, the thup-thup-thup of elephants lumbering on forest paths, and the dhip-dhip of her heartbeat.
Waters’ illustrations are lush and colorful. She uses texture and pattern to create a jungle. The colors range from earthy browns to deep oranges and hot pinks. The cut paper collages have strong clean lines and add a perfect organic feel to the story.
A great choice for library folk tale collections, this is a story that reads aloud well and has just the right mix of repetition, sound and inventiveness. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis
Valli picks up coal every day at her home town of Jharia, India. But when she discovers that the family she is staying with is not her real family, she is free to leave their abuse and fend for herself. She hops aboard a coal truck and ends up in Kolkata on the streets. There she “borrows” items that she needs, giving them to others who need them more when she is finished with them. She eats by begging for food and money or doesn’t eat much at all. Valli has one super power, she has feet that feel no pain. So she can stand on hot coals, run across glass, and never feel the wounds. But this is not a real super power, it is leprosy. A kind doctor discovers Valli and offers treatment, though it is some time before Valli is able to trust her. This powerful read speaks to the horrors of poverty, the brutality of life on the streets, and one remarkable young girl who survives it all.
Ellis is known for her powerful writing and this book definitely has that. The book could have become dark and depressing in less skilled hands, but Ellis through the spunky Valli keeps the book moving forward and keeps the viewpoint optimistic. Yet Ellis does not shy away from harsh realities of life on the streets and being an unwanted child in a family. It is Valli who makes this book work so well, her vitality shines on every page.
Ellis handles the subject of leprosy with a delicacy and honesty that is heartwarming. Valli responds to the lepers she meets as “monsters,” but she and the reader learn that there is nothing to fear. Valli sees the people behind their deformities and the reader will too.
A powerful and outstanding book, this tough subject is written at a level that will invite young readers into a world they had never realized existed. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
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Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
Elliot and Kailash are new pen pals. As they share letters, they share the differences and similarities of their lives in Elliot’s America and Kailash’s India. Both boys like to climb trees. Their families are very different with Elliot living with his mother, father and baby sister and Kailash living with an extended family of 23. They both have pets, but the pets are different. Both boys take a bus to school, but the communities are very different except for the traffic. The boys discover that they can be friends despite their obvious differences by looking to see how much they are actually they same.
Kostecki-Shaw writes with a very positive tone here. Through the two boys, she demonstrates how we are all so much more similar than we may realize. At the same time, she rejoices in the differences between the two characters, allowing us to see the different cultures side-by-side.
Her art is very effective as well, rendering both cultures with bright colors, plenty of motion, and a natural energy that captures the eye. She makes the differences between the cultures quite compelling.
A perfect book to share in a class along with a pen pal unit, this book is also a good pick for sharing when discussing differences since it takes such a positive approach. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Company.
Dorje’s Stripes by Anshumani Ruddra, illustrated by Gwangjo and Jung-a Park
In a small Buddhist temple in the Himalayas, the monks have an unusual visitor, a Royal Bengal tiger named Dorje. Dorje is very unusual himself, because his coat has no stripes. In the two years since he arrived at the monastery, they disappeared one by one. One evening, the youngest monk noticed that Dorje had one stripe again! One of the monks tells the story of when he entered Dorje’s dreams and saw that as Dorje lost each stripe, a tiger had died. Now there was a new tiger in the wilderness, a female tiger, who seemed to have taken a liking to Dorje. Soon perhaps, his coat will fill again with stripes.
Inspired by the tragic loss of tigers in India, this story vividly tells of the loss in a way that children will easily relate to. The story is quietly told through Dorje himself and the voices of the monks. It is a story that speaks gently about horrors beyond children’s comprehension, making them tangible and understandable.
Ruddra’s tone is one of respect and awe for this creature. He takes his time to tell the story to its fullest, offering inspiration along the way. The illustrations are glowing with bright colors that capture the coat of Dorje and the world of the monastery. The watercolors have been allowed to bleed a bit, creating auras around things. At other times, the painting is tight and controlled. The two play against each other, showing the wild next to the tame.
This is a lovely and inspiring book about threatened species. It captures the plight, the loss and the recovery in one beautiful story. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Kane Miller EDC Publishing.
Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan
Rosalind is not a normal British child living in India in 1918. The other girls her age are shipped back to England for boarding school or spend their days at the club flirting covertly with young English soldiers and swimming in the pool. Rosalind has never been to England, her mother refused to send her to boarding school because her older brother died in England while at school. Rosalind doesn’t identify with the other English girls. Instead her best friend is the daughter of one of the Indian servants and together they make illicit visits to the bazaar. When Rosalind’s father returns from World War I, he brings with him stricter rules than Rosalind has been living under. He disapproves of her friendships, forbids her going to the bazaar, and objects to her interest in Gandhi and his politics. Rosalind’s world changes just as India begins to seek its independence from the British in this fascinating historical novel.
Rosalind is a great protagonist. She is at odds with her English world, yet it is never pushed so far that her reactions and attitude loses touch with the historical setting. She is strong, vibrant and a great lens to see India through because she is a bridge between modern readers and World War I.
Whelan creates her world with tiny touches, drawing India for readers in the details. Her imagery is lovely, emphasizing the impermanence, the beauty, and the restlessness of the story. Yet the story does not drag at all. This is historical fiction that is relevant, vital and interesting. The pacing is beautifully done, offering the languid pace of an India heat wave, the time it took to travel at that time, and the desperation of a people.
I am hopeful that we will read more of Rosalind’s story in an upcoming book. I look forward to seeing where Whelan will take readers next. Perfect for middle school readers who will enjoy the engaging heroine and the touch of romance. Appropriate for readers age 10-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
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