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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Classroom Connections
Since Gloria Whelan won the 2000 National Book Award for her groundbreaking novel Homeless Bird, many more excellent works of fiction set in India have been published. The authors of most of these books are women of Indian descent who now live in America, and they offer readers an inside view of India’s distinct culture that is often based on their own memories or those of family members.
The torrential rainfalls, called monsoons, that cross the subcontinent every year are the topic of two beautiful picture books that can serve as an introduction to the sights and sounds of India for students of all ages. In Uma Krishnaswami’s Monsoon, a little girl and her mother wander through the streets of their city, waiting for the monsoon to begin. Krishnaswami’s lyrical language paints pictures with words and lets readers feel the sizzling heat and palpable tension building up just before the heavy downpours start. The heat makes the girl feel like a “crocodile crouching snap jawed,” for example. Jamel Akib’s vivid pastel illustrations in the dusty red hues of the premonsoon heat complement the mood of the story perfectly.
Kashmira Sheth’s Monsoon Afternoon focuses on intergenerational bonds within an extended family during recurring monsoons. A boy and his grandfather play together in the rain and then stroll through their village, talking about the old man’s memories of past monsoons. Yoshiko Jaeggi’s soft watercolors extend the book’s warmhearted feel. Encourage primary students to compare the descriptions of monsoons in these poetic picture books and to find differences and similarities in the characters’ conversations with family members about this intense weather phenomenon. Classroom discussions with older readers can examine how both authors use metaphors and similes to convey mood and setting.
Holding Memories in Its Folds
Told through the eyes of young girls, Sandhya Rao’s My Mother’s Sari, Pooja Makhijani’s Mama’s Saris, and Kashmira Sheth’s My Dadima Wears a Sari capture the magic of a woman draping herself in this long piece of unstitched cloth. The books give primary-grade students the opportunity to compare and contrast the stories and also to tell about their own experiences of dressing up. In Rao’s short book, a little girl plays with her mother’s sari and discovers how she can hide in it or even use it as a hammock. In Mama’s Saris, a young girl watches her mother getting dressed in a sari and begs to wear one herself. The mother and daughter’s conversation about the occasions when Mama wore each of her saris shows the role of the sari in the family’s heritage. In My Dadima Wears a Sari, two girls watch their grandmother (dadima) drape the luscious fabric artfully around her body. Explaining the versatility of a sari’s long end, known as the pallu, she also imparts the message that “each sari passed from one generation to another tells stories and holds memories in its folds.”
Girls against Tradition
Arranged marriages and the preference often given to boys within families can severely restrict girls’ choices in India. The conflicts that arise from young women’s resistance to family expectations provide ample material for good fiction, so it comes as no surprise that most of the novels discussed here have female protagonists. Even though the books’ stories are set in different time periods, their heroines find themselves in similar circumstances as they question long-standing, deeply entrenched customs and traditions.
Kashmira Sheth’s Keeping Corner follows a girl’s development from spoiled child to emancipated young woman and is set against the backdrop of the Indian liberation movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi during WW I. Leela, 12, is preparing to move in with her new husband, whom she barely knows, when he suddenly dies. Family tradition forces her to shave her hair, lock away all beautiful fabrics, and stay inside the house for a year, a custom known as “keeping corner.” Her brother, though, challenges tradition and hires a tutor to educate her. This powerful novel offers several tie-ins with social-studies topics related to Indian history or human-rights issues.
Set in 1941, Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman, also explores a young woman’s struggle for emancipation under dire circumstances. Vidya’s father, a member of Gandhi’s nonviolent “freedom fighters,” sustains a brain injury during a protest rally against British occupation. Stripped of the father’s income, the family has to move in with relatives in Madras, where Vidya becomes a target of her tyrannical aunt. Hoping to attend college in the future, her only immediate relief is the time she is allowed to spend in the family’s library, where she buries herself in books. Like Leela, in Keeping Corner, Vidya is a strong heroine who acts with courage in adverse circumstances. A combined study of the two novels offers ample material for a discussion about how the girls break from expectations and how both authors weave their protagonists’ character development together with the story of India’s fight for freedom from colonial rule.
Gloria Whelan’s Small Acts of Amazing Courage, set in 1919, is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Rosalind, who lives with her British parents in India. Rosalind, unlike her British girlfriends, is aware of the social injustice imposed by the British colonial regime and sympathizes with India’s struggle for independence. When her father catches her listening to Gandhi at a rally, he sends her to England, where she must learn to live with her two aunts. Like Climbing the Stairs and Keeping Corner, this novel blends the issues of individual freedom and the freedom of nations into its plot, allowing readers insight into the lives of both Indian and British women and children during the British Raj.
After her father loses his job and is forced to move to America in search of employment, 16-year-old Asha, protagonist of Mitali Perkins’ Secret Keeper, travels with her mother and older sister to Calcutta to stay with relatives. Here the girls’ lives become more and more restricted as their aunt and uncle impose strict control on their activities and begin to look for a suitable marriage candidate for Asha’s beautiful sister. Impulsive Asha, who dreams of becoming a psychologist, finds solace from her hostile home environment by hiding on the roof, where she writes in a diary, her “secret keeper.” Jay, the boy next door, watches her, and when he draws her portrait, Asha is surprised to learn that Jay likes her and not her gorgeous sister. Set during Indira Gandhi’s government in the midseventies, Secret Keeper shows that more than 30 years after the world described in Climbing the Stairs, not much had changed for women in Indian society.
In Kashmira Sheth’s Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet, 16-year-old Jeeta watches her mother arrange marriages for her two older sisters and dreams of a different path to matrimony for herself, the kind of romance depicted in movies. She develops a forbidden relationship with her friend’s cousin but must learn to strike a balance between duty and her desire for independence. Set in contemporary Mumbai and narrated in Jeeta’s engaging first-person voice, the story depicts another young woman’s coming-of-age as she navigates between the joy and pain of family traditions and expectations. There is much to discuss here: the lining up of suitors for an arranged marriage, concerns about skin tone, and the obligation young women feel toward their families, along with the sacrifices that result.
Poverty and Child Labor
Many children under 14 years of age are forced to work in India, often under terrible conditions. The causes of their plight lie in the extreme poverty of their families, who depend on even the smallest additions to the household income to survive. Kashmira Sheth’s Boys without Names follows 11-year-old Gopal and his family, who leave their home in rural India to escape their debt. In Mumbai, Gopal ends up as a slave laborer in a factory, where a group of boys call each other by nicknames because they are not allowed to reveal their real names. Exposed to the cruelty of the factory’s owner, Gopal uses his gift for storytelling to unite the boys and convince them to attempt an escape. An extensive author’s note provides background on child labor in India. Pair this book with my own Saraswati’s Way, in which 12-year-old Akash, whose family sends him to work in a stone quarry to help repay their debt, runs away and ends up as a street child living in New Delhi’s train stations. Both novels will appeal to boy readers and make good additions to a study unit on child labor, migration, or human rights.
In Deborah Ellis’ latest novel, No Ordinary Day, Valli lives in the coastal town of Jhari. She is afraid of the lepers, referred to as “monsters,” on the other side of the train tracks. When she discovers that her “aunt” is not really her aunt, she runs away and ends up in Calcutta, where she begs and steals to stay alive. A chance encounter with a doctor leads to a diagnosis of leprosy, and it takes Valli some time to learn to accept help. This straightforward story of a girl’s struggle against adversity also brings the issue of leprosy to readers’ attention. Teachers could use it together with Saraswati’s Way and Boys without Names, deepening the discussion with extension projects about child labor, runaways, poverty, and illiteracy in India.
Modernity vs. Tradition
Padma Venkatraman’s second novel, Island’s End, takes readers to the remote Andaman Islands, located to the east of the Indian subcontinent. Uido, 15, can see spirits, and the spiritual leader of the tribe chooses her to become his successor. First, though, she has to undergo a rigorous training. After strangers arrive on the island and threaten the native people’s traditional way of life, Uido’s leadership abilities and her courage are challenged as she and her people stand at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. Uido’s vivid first-person narrative authentically expresses her self-doubt and faith as well as her people’s close connection to nature and their religion. This unusual novel offers many topics for students’ research and discussion about the way of life and the spiritual world of ancient tribes as well as their struggle for survival.
Uma Krishnaswami’s The Grand Plan to Fix Everything is a light, fun read for the upper-elementary crowd even as it authentically introduces readers to aspects of life in India. Eleven-year-old Dini Kumaran loves Bollywood movies, particularly the actress Dolly Singh. After her mother receives a grant to work in an Indian village for two years, the family leaves their home in Maryland, and Dini is disappointed to miss Bollywood dance camp and her friend Maddie. But, as it turns out, the admired actress’ family lives in the village Dini moves to, and when Dini learns that Dolly might actually come to the village, things start to look up. The story’s plot twists, numerous coincidences, and closing party, complete with dance numbers, are reminiscent of a Bollywood movie script, but as Krishnaswami writes, “It’s not always a bad thing when things turn surreal. It’s what life can be sometimes. Strange and weird, beyond real.” Just like India.
Mama’s Saris. By Pooja Makhijani. Illus. by Elena Gomez. 2007. 32p. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316011051). PreS–Gr. 2.
Monsoon. By Uma Krishnaswami. Illus. by Jamel Akib. 2003. 32p. Farrar, $16.95 (9780374350154). PreS–Gr. 2.
Monsoon Afternoon. By Kashmira Sheth. Illus. by Yoshiko Jaeggi. 2008. 32p. Peachtree, $16.95 (9781561454556). PreS–Gr. 2.
My Dadima Wears a Sari. By Kashmira Sheth. Illus. by Yoshiko Jaeggi. 2007. 32p. Peachtree, $16.95 (9781561453924). PreS–Gr. 2.
My Mother’s Sari. By Sandhya Rao. Illus. by Nina Sabnani. 2006. 24p. NorthSouth, paper, $7.95 (9780735822337). PreS–K.
Boys without Names. By Kashmira Sheth. 2010. 320p. HarperCollins/Balzer and Bray, $16.99 (9780061857607); paper, $6.99 (9780061857621). Also available in an e-book edition. Gr. 4–7.
Climbing the Stairs. By Padma Venkatraman. 2008. 256p. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399247460); paper, $8.99 (9780142414903). Gr. 6–9.
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. By Uma Krishnaswami. Illus. by Abigail Halpin. 2011. 272p. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781416995890). Also available in an e-book edition. Gr. 4–6.
Homeless Bird. By Gloria Whelan. 2000. 192p. HarperCollins, paper, $5.99 (9780064408196). Also available in an e-book edition. Gr. 6–9.
Island’s End. By Padma Venkatraman. 2011. 240p. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399250996). Also available in an e-book edition. Gr. 7–10.
Keeping Corner. By Kashmira Sheth. 2007. 304p. Hyperion, paper, $5.99 (9780786838608). Gr. 8–11.
Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet. By Kashmira Sheth. 2006. 256p. Hyperion, o.p. Gr. 8–11.
No Ordinary Day. By Deborah Ellis. 2011. 160p. Groundwood, $16.95 (9781554981342); paper, $12.95 (9781554981083). Gr. 4–7.
Saraswati’s Way. By Monika Schröder. 2010. 240p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $16.99 (9780374364113). Also available in an e-book edition. Gr. 4–7.
Secret Keeper. By Mitali Perkins. 2009. 240p. Delacorte, lib. ed., $19.99 (9780385903561). Also available in an e-book edition. Gr. 7–12.
Small Acts of Amazing Courage. By Gloria Whelan. 2011. 224p. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $15.99 (9781442409316). Also available in an e-book edition. Gr. 6–9.
Monika Schröder is a former elementary-school librarian at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. Her third novel for young readers, My Brother’s Shadow, was published in 2011. Visit her at www.monikaschroeder.com.
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