Children’s Books: Of Lies and Longing
ANJALI ENJETI reviews Gerald McDermott’s Monkey: A Trickster Tale From India (ages 4 to 7), published by HMH Books, and Farhana Zia’s Child of Spring (ages 8 to 12), published by Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta.
Caldecott medalist Gerald McDermott’s Monkey: A Trickster Tale From India is the sixth and final installation of what the author has deemed “the trickster tales,” which include Jabuti the Tortoise, Zomo the Rabbit, Raven, Pig-Boy, and Coyote. About Monkey, McDermott writes, “I was inspired to tell this popular story—known as the Samsara-Jataka—because of its wonderful mixture of morality and irony.”
Indeed it is. Our heroine, the clever and cunning Monkey, needs a lift to the island in the middle of the river to procure some tasty mangoes. Our villain Crocodile offers him a lift with the hopes that he can eat Monkey’s heart for lunch. Monkey hops onto Crocodile’s back, and it’s only when they are in deep water that Monkey catches onto Crocodile’s sinister motivation. McDermott eloquently spins this playful, mischievous tale, but what makes this book so vibrant and sharp are the accompanying handmade paper collage illustrations by Tania Baban-Natal. Any child age two to nine, or any child at heart, will treasure this fresh take on a classic Buddhist tale.
In Farhana Zia’s Child of Spring, 12-year-old Basanta covets the glittery ring belonging to Memsaab’s daughter, Little Bibi. Basanta envies, too, Little Bibi’s charmed life in the Big House where Basanta and her Amma spend their days cleaning among “soft, velvety sofas,” “carpets spread out like fields of flowers,” and a courtyard with “sweet-smelling motia bushes.” Basanta resides in a cramped, smoky hut with her Amma, her Bapu, and her baby sister, Durga, though she finds solitude in the shade of a tamarind tree where she confesses her worries to her beloved, bedraggled doll, Tikki, and a crow named Dinoo Kaka.
Zia, a former teacher in Hyderabad, is the author of the acclaimed picture book, Hot Hot Roti for Dada-ji, as well as the award-winning middle grade novel, The Garden of My Imaan, a story about a Muslim girl experiencing discrimination because of her religion. In the author’s latest effort, she paints a vivid portrait of the precocious Basanta while breathing life into passionate and quirky secondary characters, like Lily, Basanta’s best friend; Bala and Paki, fierce kite-flying rivals; Basanta’s archrival, the sly and sneaky Rukmani; and Kalu, the mangy village dog who stars in the village’s “Wonder Dog Show.”
Zia pens polished, evocative prose: “The tamarind tree loomed ahead, strong and erect like a turbaned soldier standing guard atop the little knoll. Behind it, the sky was changing from red to saffron to pink. I heard green pods rustling in the fern-like leaves above.” She deftly builds tension in a kite-flying contest: “Up the kites climbed, goaded by the rush of wind. Soon they were mere specks, ready for the strike,” and employs playful, colorful language: “People would come from near and far… Didn’t people always stop to watch the cobra fan its head? Didn’t they always roar when a wicket got felled by the ball?”
And when young Basanta at last comes into possession of Little Bibi’s ring, the author leaves her readers with two important lessons: True joy does not come from riches, and a life full of love is the richest life of all.
This dazzling, delightful novel is ideal reading for children from grades three through six.
Anjali Enjeti is an Atlanta-based essayist, book critic, and novelist.
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