Neel lives on an island in the Sunderbans, but might have a unique opportunity for a scholarship to a boarding school in Calcutta. But he’d rather stay on his beloved island with his family. A tiger cub escaped from the nature preserve, and an unscrupulous man wants to find it to sell. Can Neel find the cub first? If he does, will not studying ruin his chances at the scholarship?
As always, Mitali Perkins is a winner. This book reminded me of Carl Hiasson’s novels – a strong ecological message but still very readable. I strongly identified with Neel’s desire to slack off and not study as a way of not getting the scholarship and avoiding the choice about leaving.
His moral and financial choices are intriguing and very real. While this book is set in the islands between India and Bangladesh, the choice between a high-paying job that compromises one’s morals and being honest but extremely poor will sound familiar to people all over the world.
Neel’s life revolves around his family and his school, but there are a few other characters present. His father’s boss, his friends, and some of the other people on the island have their own problems and choices. I was impressed with Perkins choices with her female characters. Neel’s older sister Rupa pays a major role in the story even though she is illiterate. She had to drop out of school to care for their mother, but her mind is still as sharp and keen as ever. Perkins also points out that the boys eat little during their meal to ensure that the women (who eat after the men) will have plenty of food.
Some of the characters make poor choices, including some we would respect otherwise. However those decisions are always called out as poor. Education, conservation, and respect of women are championed during the story.
There is an extensive glossary, and the unique cultural practices of the Sunderbans are written in such a way that they make sense to the western reader. I think this would be a great book for a whole-class read or read aloud. The environmental aspects provide a nice tie to science and the setting could teach about geography and landforms.
Hogan’s artwork does a good job of interesting the reader and helping picture the setting. This book does not rely on art as much as Rickshaw Girl did, but the cute tiger pictures don’t hurt!
This would interest boys who are reluctant readers, but still contains a strong female character. A tiger cub is in danger, and the danger to poachers from tiger attacks is mentioned at several points, but there wasn’t much to caution young or sensitive readers on.
I’d highly recommend this book for kids between 3rd and 7th grade. The specific age of the children is not given (although one can guess based on Neel’s grade), and the content will appeal to students in middle school or upper elementary. While it won’t generally appeal to adults who don’t read MG, this would also be a great title for teens or ESL students who need a simpler text but not necessarily a simple story.