Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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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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Mira in the Present Tense (originally published in the U.K as Artichoke Hearts) by Sita Bhramachari

cover for Mira in the Present TenseMira in the Present Tense is definitely a three-hankie book. This storyline tows the reader on an emotional roller coaster, gently rocking us back and forth through sadness to acceptance, up to excitement and down to understanding, and over and under through past and present. I found myself tired, but at ease, with the characters slowly strolling through my mind.
We meet Mira, the Indian-Jewish protagonist, days before her 12th birthday and just before she joins a writing class and begins her May Day journal. Mira in the Present Tense is organized by dates instead of chapters, just as a journal would be. For the next month, we jump into Mira’s life as she reaches the highs and lows of the normal coming of age milestones- starting her period, her first crush and first heterosexual kiss, finding her own voice, and standing up to her bullies. At the same time, we join Mira as she and her family live with the impending death of her dad’s mum, Nana Josie. With Nana Josie gracefully leading the way, Mira learns that some heartbreaks are necessary if you truly love the person.
The strength of this book is in its characters, with Nana Josie stealing the spotlight. In her own words, “It is bloody hard work dying well,” but Nana Josie indeed does die well cover for Artichoke Hearts by Sita Bhramachariwith grace and kindness for all who will miss her. The author, Sita Brahmachari, places layer upon layer until each individual is shaped in our minds. Mira at school is almost painfully shy and introspective, relying only on her best girlfriend and later on a boy in her writing class. But with Nana Josie, Mira is uninhibited. Nana Josie lends Mira her creative strength and her unbound love. Pat Print is another character of note. She appears to Mira in the most honest ways at the most unexpected time, almost as if she is Mira’s guardian angel.
Mira is of Jewish and Indian descent, but beyond her name there is not much mention or focus on this fact in the story. I found this quite normalizing as our children of mixed heritage will no doubt identify with Mira for her racial make-up but everyone can identify with Mira for the struggle she is facing in the death of her grandmother. There are two other characters I would like to point out to potential readers. Mira’s crush, Jide, was a Rwandan refugee adopted by refugee camp workers. There are some small details about the atrocities in Rwanda and if children are unaware it might bring up questions. Jide talks about the physical differences between himself and his adopted parents. He also mentions how frustrating and mad it can make him when strangers make intrusive and uneducated comments. Mira’s Aunt Abi has a female partner, who we are introduced to early on. She does not play a main role and honestly, her brief introduction is quite off putting. When Mira writes, “Nana points to Abi, Aunty Mel—who is actually Abi’s girlfriend, but we call her aunty anyway,” I got the feeling that Abi having a female partner was accepted but not advertised or completely ok.

I recommended this book for ages 10-13.
Reviewer:  Amanda Setty

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

cover for My Basmati Bat MitzvahI sucked this book down like a mango lassi. It was smooth, sweet and went down quickly. So quickly, in fact I read it in 24 hours. And then like my girls, I sat back, took a breath and dove back in for a second reading, running my finger along the side of the cup looking for some goodness that I left behind.
Paula J. Freedman created a strong female character, for which I thank her. Tara Feinstein is the girl we all want our daughters to be. She has her own fashion style—
vintage. She plays hoops with her best boyfriend. She still plays dress up at the age of 12 with her best girlfriend. She is pumped to join the robotics team. She is not afraid to stand up for herself, although she is learning to manage it with words and not fists. She also stands up for others, especially when they need a friend. She gives second chances, preferring to see the good in people. She questions her beliefs and seeks for answers.
But life is not all easy peazy lemon squeezy for Tara. She and her friends are going through a season of preteen changes—bat mitzvahs, changing bodies, shifting relationships and first crushes. As Tara prepares for her own bat mitzvah she struggles to understand how she can be Indian, like her mother, Jewish, like her father and remain herself. How can she be Jewish if she is not even sure she believes in God? If she goes through with this Bat Mitzvah, does that mean she is picking her “Jewish side” over her “Indian side”? Will she only date and marry Jewish boys, like her other Jewish friends? My Basmati Bat Mitzvah raises topics many of our bi-racial, bi-cultural children will face or are facing. Tara’s voice is honest and sturdy, allowing readers from all backgrounds to easily put themselves in her place.
On my second read of the book, I unfortunately did not find many leftover bits of goodness stuck to the side of my cup. I found myself bothered by the underdeveloped characters, orbiting around Tara. I wanted more connection with her parents. Tara’s Jewish Gran and her Indian Auntie seem a bit too stereotypical for my liking. And many of Freedman’s characters seemed like superficial offerings- the immigrant child gone wild, the Korean adopted child, the always in trouble child with ADHD, the Muslim child whose father jokes about getting her married at the age of 12, and the perfect child who turns out to have trichotillomania and problems with shoplifting. Perhaps this book would be a good fit for a book group or classroom, so readers could find ways to make these distinctive characters more vibrant and “finish” them. I was also bothered that the robotics club storyline just disappeared. It held such promise of a preteen girl not only psyched about science but also talented, and then offered us nothing except for scenes of teenage romance and angst. The one bright point in my re-read was to explore Tara’s special relationship with her open-minded and very patient rabbi. Every teenager needs to connect with a trustworthy adult outside of their family.

Recommendation: I recommend this book for ages 12-14. The writing itself is suited for ages 9+ but some of the topics, such as, first heterosexual kiss and a friend suffering from trichotillomania might be better received by an older reader.

Book Reviewer: Amanda Setty