In Mitali Perkins’s first book, she drew on her own experiences growing up as a Bengali-American teenager in California. The main character, Sunita S...more In Mitali Perkins’s first book, she drew on her own experiences growing up as a Bengali-American teenager in California. The main character, Sunita Sen, is your typical teenage girl. All she wants to do is fit in and be “normal.” Up until now things were headed in that direction, that is, until her very traditional grandparents arrive from India to spend the year with her family.
Although the plot is a bit formulaic and the story is a bit predictable, this is still an enjoyable look at a 13-year-old girl’s journey in search of self-identity and appreciation of one’s family and culture.
My favorite element of the book is the relationship that blossoms between Dadu (the grandfather) and Sunita. Just as Dadu teaches Sunita to cultivate her plants in their garden, so does he nurture his granddaughter, helping her learn more about herself and where she fits into this life of two cultures.
Mitali Perkins’s latest novel features two male main characters. Set in present-day, conflict-ridden Burma (Myanmar), two fifteen-year-old boys on oppo...moreMitali Perkins’s latest novel features two male main characters. Set in present-day, conflict-ridden Burma (Myanmar), two fifteen-year-old boys on opposite sides of the war find themselves face-to-face. Chiko, the son of a doctor imprisoned by the Burmese government, has been forcibly recruited into the government’s military. He would much rather be home reading and learning from his father’s (illegal) stash of books and taking care of his mother (as he promised his father), than be fighting out in the jungle. Tu Reh is a Karenni refugee, who wants to be out fighting for his people after his family is forced to flee their home and the bamboo fields that were their life-source. When Tu Reh comes across the wounded Burmese soldier (Chiko), he is forced to make the decision of letting him die or saving him. His decision changes both of their lives as they each struggle to figure out who they are in a land seized by conflict, violence, and prejudice.
It is plain to see why this book has received awards and accolades. Mitali Perkins has written a gripping story of the conflict of cultures in Burma at a level that teenagers as well as adults can understand. Having lived there for three years, her knowledge of the conflict adds vivid and authentic detail to her writing. (less)
Young Naima, a girl living in Bangladesh, desperately wishes she could help her father earn more money so that he does not have to spend so many long...moreYoung Naima, a girl living in Bangladesh, desperately wishes she could help her father earn more money so that he does not have to spend so many long hours in his job as a rickshaw driver. If only she had been born a boy, like her friend Saleem. Then like him, she could take over the job for a few hours to let her father have a bit of time to rest. Unfortunately, the only thing that she, a girl, can do is help her mother around the hut and paint alpanas (floral, geometrical designs painted using rice powder and colored chalk or other powdered natural substances such as flower petals or lentils) outside their home. While she is the village’s best alpana painter, she does not see how this could be helpful to earn money for her family. After a disastrous attempt to figure out how to ride her father’s rickshaw so that she might dress up as a boy to help him, Naima ends up damaging his new rickshaw, and putting her family deeper in debt. How can Naima ever find a way to help out her family? With a little ingenuity and a little luck, Naima discovers that being born a girl can actually turn out to be a good thing.
There is so much I would love to say about this wonderful book, but rather than writing a huge essay, I will simply touch on a couple of things.
Young...moreThere is so much I would love to say about this wonderful book, but rather than writing a huge essay, I will simply touch on a couple of things.
Young Ju and her parents come to the United States from Korea in search of the American dream, yet as the young girl grows up (the story starts when she is about 4 years old and continues through early adulthood), she realizes that there are many obstacles in their way. An Na masterfully takes us through the life of this immigrant girl as she and her family struggle with language and cultural barriers, economic difficulties, and a search for one’s identity. All of the family’s dreams of a better life come crashing down around them as her father’s alcoholism and abusive behavior come to a head. Young Ju, her brother, and her mother each deal with this in their own ways, trying to survive the torrents of Apa’s (Father’s) rage.
The theme of the story, that of a family torn apart by the abuse of a controlling, alcoholic parental figure, transcends cultural lines. This is a problem that is universal and is not limited to any particular ethnic group. Yet in the case of this story, the culture of the family is an important factor. The father’s alcoholism and need for control is heightened as he feels his grip on things in this new country slip farther and farther from his grasp. With a lack of higher education, understanding of American culture and knowledge of the English language, he cannot be the man in charge of his family as is his tradition. We see this contrast between his home behavior and his experience outside of his domain when he takes Young Ju to get her green card renewed when she is about to turn thirteen years old. Out in the American, English-speaking world, he cannot take care of things himself due to his lack of English and ends up needing to rely on his daughter for communication. This is one of the few times that we (and Young Ju) see Apa’s helplessness. As his alcoholism spins further out of control, his behavior becomes more and more erratic and destructive—to his family and himself—causing his outside-world behavior and his home behavior to jumble together. Alcohol takes over where his pride once stood.
A note on An Na’s literary style in this book: I really loved how through her use of language we can “hear” Young Ju’s voice as she journeys from a very small girl of a bout four up through adulthood. I can imagine the little girl talking about colors not as specifically named hues (like “blue” or “purple”), but as ideas. For example, on page 26 upon seeing her Uncle Tim for the first time, she does not say that her Uncle Tim has blue eyes. Instead she describes them as “daytime, sun-is-shining, sky-color eyes.” Then, on page 28, when Gomo (her aunt) offers her an American drink that she says everyone here loves, the young narrator can only describe it, not having had any experience with this drink called, “Ko-ka Ko-la.” She is not sure what to make of this “cup with dirty black water inside.” She notes that it has bubbles and perhaps it is “a drink from the sea.” When she takes a sip of it, she states that the beverage “bites the inside of my mouth and throat like swallowing tiny fish bones.” She can’t imagine how anyone would love this drink. When she is told to finish drinking it, she unhappily takes “a big swallow of the hurting drink.” I can just picture this little girl saying this, talking in descriptions, especially if she has no concrete word for it like “fizzy.” This is just an example of the imaginative use of language that the author uses to give her narrator “voice.” (less)
The picture on the cover says it all. There we see a close up of a girl with her head in her hands and heavy-lidded eyes all capturing the frustration...moreThe picture on the cover says it all. There we see a close up of a girl with her head in her hands and heavy-lidded eyes all capturing the frustration of a girl who must certainly be the one who feels “squashed in the middle.” Through the bright, expressive pictures and humorous text, the author and illustrator convey exactly what a good contemporary realistic fiction book should: help us feel empathy for a character that might be going through the same thing we are (or someone we know). Even if they are not a middle child, children can relate to that idea of adults or other family members not always listening to what they say. Most can relate to that need to be heard, acknowledged and appreciated.
I think a great book to pair this with would be Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst with illustrations by Ray Cruz. While the children in these stories are not going through the exact same situations, both elicit empathy from the reader. Both stories also deal with the idea of one’s family not listening to the main character. Both children want to be acknowledged and have their opinions valued. Both want to be appreciated, heard, and not ignored. (less)