Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

cover for BreadcrumbsIn Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu has penned a lively, wistful tale that gets at so much of the poignancy that is being a 10-year-old. This is a moving story that offers a modern-day account of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” In Ursu’s version, Hazel, a ten-year-old Indian-American girl with white (adoptive) parents is best friends with Jack, the boy next door until Jack mysteriously changes. The adults around them chalk up this change to typical pre-teen turmoil: it’s not unusual for girl–boy friendships to become awkward. But the reader can feel Hazel’s sadness. It’s hard to grow up, it’s hard to change and watch others change. Hazel is caught between wanting to fit in and wanting to keep her special friendship with Jack the way it is. At its heart, this is a story about how we can hold onto our real selves even as we change along with our friends. (more…)

Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari

Alternate photo for Jasmine SkiesWhen I heard Sita Brahmachari had written a sequel to Artichokes Hearts (Mira in the Present Tense) I could not wait to get my hands and eyes on it. Like a memorable character does, Mira had gone on living in my mind and I was excited to see where her creator had taken her. But while Brahmachari’s second novel does continue to focus on Mira and includes character references from her previous book it did not feel like a sequel or a continuation from the first novel. So while it did not satisfy my curiosity, it does mean this book can stand on its own. A reader can begin with Jasmine Skies and not feel lost.

Jasmine Skies reintroduces the reader to Mira Levenson at the age of 14. After the passing of her grandfather, family ties were tenuously rekindled and Mira is on the way to Kolkata, India to meet her grandfather’s side of the family for the first time. In her bag she has letters taken without permission from her mother. Mira believes these letters hold the clues to discover the reason her grandfather never returned to India and why Mira’s mother and her same aged cousin, Anjali, stopped speaking. Despite the strained relationship, Mira is excited to be staying with Anjali and her daughter, Priya for three weeks. She is excited to meet members of her family for the first time and to get to know Kolkata, the place her grandfather told her stories about all her her life.

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Nina and the Traveling Spice Shed by Madhvi Ramani

cover Nina and the Travelling Spice ShedIf 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”. (more…)

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

cover Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood Varsha Bajaj’s novel, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood presents the story of a bi-racial Indian-America girl who’s never met her father. She’s spent her life living in Houston, Texas with her mother being a happy, well-loved American girl who only knows one thing about her father: he is from India.

The story opens with Abby having an allergic reaction to coconut. After having to admit she knows nothing about the medical history of the father of her child, Abby’s mother realizes she needs to attempt to contact him, something she has not tried since she found out she was pregnant. After a very small window of waiting, she is finally able to contact her ex-boyfriend and as it turns out, he never received the registered letter she sent all those years ago explaining Abby’s existence. Abby not only has to deal with the shock that her father never knew about her—up until this point she believed he simply didn’t want to be a part of her life—but she also finds out he is a huge Bollywood star. The rest of the novel revolves around Abby traveling to Mumbai to meet her father and the other half of her ethnicity.

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A Talk with the Author: Madhvi Ramani brings new book Nina and the Magical Carnival to life with a “live” reading and interview.

MadhviandNinaandmagiccarnival.jpg Author Madhvi Ramani has brought us three delightful, globe-trotting journeys featuring mystery solving, elementary school protagonist Nina who goes on adventures around the world in her aunt’s magical travelling spice shed. The child of immigrant parents from India, Nina is a first generation Brit trying to excel at school, avoid bullies and define her cultural identity in a way that honors who she really feels she is and isn’t too offensive to her family. In the first two books, Nina’s trips to India and China helped her solve some extraordinary problems. In the third novel, Nina travels to Brazil.

Today, the author reads us the first chapter of the third book in the series: Nina and the Magical Carnival, which gets released in the United States today, just in time for winter holiday gifting.

In addition to reading us the first chapter of her new release, Ramani took the time to discuss diversity in children’s literature and her debut novel, Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed.

Support diversity literature and give the young readers in your life some great reads by buying all three titles or just the new release, Nina and the Magical Carnival.

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Perfect Lil Blends by Luke Whitehead

cover for Perfect Lil BlendsPerfect Lil Blends: A Reality Book that Celebrates the Diversity  of Multicultural Children  is like a series of love letters from parents to their children accompanied by their children’s portraits. Compiled by Luke Whitehead, the founder of Mixed Nation, this is a photo essay of children of mixed heritage from almost every racial, cultural, and ethnic background. Yes, most of these children are exceptionally beautiful however, similar to, but more personal than, Kip Fulbeck’s photo essay book Mixed, each photo of a child is accompanied by a description of the child’s life interests and a note of dedication from the parents to the child, making this more than a vanity book of portraits. (more…)

The Toothless Tooth Fairy by Shanelle Hicks

The Toothless Tooth Fairy by Shanelle HicksWhen I first saw the cover of The Toothless Tooth Fairy, I thought, ‘Oh, the mixed girls’ version of Tinkerbell. This is the first original picture book I’ve read with a non-white magical being as protagonist. Many will see this as a simple and sweet story of a fairy’s generous heart enabling her to love her enemy and be seen as beautiful because of her kindness.

However, the tooth fairy characters are focused primarily on physical beauty. The protagonist’s name is Bella, which means “beauty.” The setting for this story is the fairies competing in a beauty contest. At the outset, the narrative states “Every tooth fairy was certain Bella was going to win. She was beautiful. She had long, curly brown hair, and her teeth were perfect,” This language coupled with all the other fairies’ hair styled in buns, pigtails, afro-puffs, ponytails, or pulled back, reinforces the concept that there is only one way to be beautiful—with long flowing hair—and only Bella inhabits that beautiful space.

Even though the next sentence says, “the most beautiful thing about Bella was her kindness,” the first action we see from Bella, instead of this kindness that is supposed to be her greatest feature of beauty, is Bella smiling and showing off her flight skills to the contest judges. Although the book’s message is that kindness is more valuable than physical beauty, the prominent importance of physical beauty that conforms to a European ideal will obscure the message of kindness for the reader under 6. Furthermore, this will impress upon readers of all ages that kindness does not make a person beautiful; it only makes those who are already conforming to European standards of beauty even prettier.

In the narrative, Bella is a tooth fairy whose enemy causes her to fly into a wall and lose a tooth during a prettiest smile contest. So she can look perfect, Bella, in turn tries to steal a tooth from three of the kids on her list who will be losing a tooth soon. The text says she is going to borrow the tooth and leave an I.O.U. behind but her ‘borrowing’ entails pulling these children’s teeth from their mouths with thread and pliers. While her actions to get these teeth are funny, there are no direct repercussions for Bella’s thievery and no consideration of the way the two brown girls from whom she steals teeth will feel when they wake up without their teeth.

Ultimately, Bella fails to steal a healthy tooth. When Bella fails to steal a usable tooth, she still comforts Zelda, her enemy who seems to be crying but Zelda is not really crying—she just pretends to cry to get Bella’s attention then she taunts Bella in response to Bella’s kindness. Bella’s tears of defeat turn Zelda into a monstrous witch but Bella hugs Zelda the witch until Zelda becomes normal, and then a “most beautiful, nice fairy”. After this, the contest judges decide there are two beautiful winners of the contest—Bella who is balanced because of her powerfully kind heart and Zelda, her nemesis who is redeemed by Bella’s kindness.

While the nemesis, Zelda, is pink and red in complexion, costume, and hair, she has a Caucasian dominant phenotype and she is the only fairy other than Bella who actually speaks or takes any individual action in the story. Although the other fairies represent every continent’s nationalities and ethnicities, all the other fairies are a silent ensemble nearly melting into the background of the story.

Recommendation:  If this story fits within your value system, it is unique and valuable for children of color to see themselves in books as leaders of magical beings.