Bangladeshi girl Naima is a gifted painter and a free spirit who spends every moment thinking about her next alpana pattern, until her family experiences a turn of fortune and she desperately wants to help drive her father’s rickshaw, like her best friend Saleem does for his family. But as a girl she can’t even speak to Saleem now that they are older.
This is a library book which I am hoping to use as a read-aloud at school. It crossed my path very randomly but I am starting to get in the habit of noting (and trying to read) any book with clearly non-white characters on the cover. This sometimes pays real dividends as I find new treasures to read and discover new-to-me authors!
The illustrations, outside of the cover, are black and white with some texture. I think they are charcoal on a textured paper. The alpanas are a very important part of this story, and there are four different designs which begin each chapter in addition to larger, more complicated designs throughout the book.
One minor issue I had with the book was that the interior illustrations did not always have shading. The cover and the context make it quite clear that this book is set in Bangladesh, but I think students seeking a mirror would find interior shading more powerful.
Naima is a young girl struggling with growing up in her rural village, especially feeling the pressure of being the oldest child in a family of girls. Traditions prevent her from working even as a painter when she is highly gifted.
It is very difficult to talk about the plot of this book without some spoilers – in fact the summary available in several places (not the blurb, but several websites) spoils an event that happens near the end of the book! So if you would like an entirely spoiler-free review, please scroll down to the end for my general opinion.
At the beginning of the book, Naima is impulsive, leading to the wreck of her father’s new rickshaw and a horrible descent into poverty for her family. Even worse is the fact that she is not able to help repair the damage. She moves from being somewhat self-absorbed, doing what she needs to but never thinking beyond her alpanas, to dwelling constantly on her mistake and becoming fairly depressed. She even ignores the contest she won last year, which could potentially have helped her family. Only the idea that she might be able to dress as a boy and help her father get his rickshaw repaired sparks life in her again.
I enjoyed this book. There were so many cultural details, some of which were familiar to me, and other which were new to me. But they were woven into Naima’s daily life. I liked that she was independent, valued education, and was blazing trails in her village. Most especially I enjoyed her character growth and how a small opportunity brought so much hope to her life. Also I found her impetuous mistake to be a very realistic tumble into poverty. So many families even in America live in situations where basic human error is the difference between survival and extreme poverty. One bad mistake or misfortune (such as crashing a rickshaw or an illness) can bring an entire family into desperate straits.
There were difficult parts (and it does get suspenseful) but the ending is hopeful, and the book conveys a sense of cultural change that is still quite respectful to traditions. Unlike some books, it does not portray Western ways as automatically the best – some elements of local culture are praised and celebrated while equality for women is sought.
/End of Spoilers
This book is aimed at early elementary and would be suitable for 2nd up to about 5th graders. The chapters are fairly short and there are pictures in every chapter. Some (but not all) end on a suspenseful note that will leave readers wanting more.
The book has a glossary which includes some illustrations such as how to put on a saree. Words found in the glossary are typically italicized in the rest of the book, but I didn’t find it too distracting. There were a few words that were not italicized, such as rickshaw.
Before reading this book, I had never heard of this author, but it turns out she has quite a few books. Most are aimed at older audiences, middle school or YA reads, and I definitely will be keeping an eye out for those books, including her forthcoming 2017 YA novel. I would strongly recommend this book for elementary readers, or as a class read-aloud. Some middle school students might also be interested.