If your readers like the Magic Tree House series, they will probably be interested in Nina and the Traveling Spice Shed. Nina is a British Indian, who really would like nothing to do with India. At school, Nina’s class is doing projects on foreign countries and despite her parents’ strong suggestions she wants to report on any country BUT India. Yet, she arrives late to school and the only country left is India. Not able to face her parents and her disappointment after school, Nina visits her eccentric Aunt Nishi. Aunt Nishi sends her to the spice shed in her backyard and that is where Nina’s traveling adventures begin. Nina’s first stop—there are more books to come—is predictably India. She discovers India is more than “hot weather and poor people”.
When Aunt Nishi sends Nina to her shed in the backyard to retrieve turmeric, Nina accidently discovers the spice shed is actually a traveling spice shed that has the ability to take her to a different country with only a touch on a computer screen. Nina travels around India where she meets a mystic sadhu, plays a small role in a Bollywood film, and has a close brush with a Bengal tiger. With all of her first-hand knowledge of India and her new found love for the country Nina gives the best report of the class. At the end of the book, the author includes some interesting facts about India and a recipe for Aunt Nishi’s Yummy Potato Curry.
Nina and the Traveling Spice Shed could be a read aloud for children as young as 6 and an independent reader for ages 8-9. The story itself is easy to follow and the plot line is predictable. The author, Madhvi Ramani, uses some more difficult words in her writing which could prove to be a gratifying challenge for a strong reader or can also offer exposure to some tier 2 words for the younger listeners. As the book is written by a British author, some of the spellings and choice of words might be new to a young American reader.
I do have mixed feelings about a character in this book though. There is the street boy named Raj whose physical appearance is described as “blending into the dusty street”. I wish Ramani’s description had not made Raj so indistinguishable and easy to pass over. Raj’s character is portrayed as a friend to Nina and he treats her with kindness. But on the flip side, Ramani pulls out all the Indian stereotypes for a street kid, even calling him a street urchin—stealing from others, tricking rich adults into giving him money, wandering the streets like he owns them and Raj himself admitting he knows every pickpocket and thief around.
I adore that the main character is a girl of Indian descent. She goes on adventures by herself and I hope to see more of her independent nature turn into explicit bravery in the books to come. The clues in this first book lead us to believe Aunt Nishi is a spy. I hope the author builds on this non-traditional occupational choice for the aunt. And I hope she proves to be a strong, female role model for Nina and for both female and male readers.
Recommendation: Recommended as as Read-aloud for ages 6+ and as an independent chapter book for ages 8-9.
Reviewer: Amanda Setty