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Acting and the whole "stop and think" theory
on February 16, 2007
Consider the reading levels a child goes through. You start them out on baby board books. Slooowly you start reading them picture books. Once they've a grasp on that then they start reading on their own with easy readers. A couple years in and it's time to move on to early chapter books. Finally, and with great relief all around, they're reading thick 500-page fantasy novels and everyone is happy. Now which one of those reading levels is, to your mind, the most difficult to find? Which is to say, which reading level seriously lacks in the quality-writing-department when all is said and done? My answer would have to be the early chapter books. Picture and baby board books are a dime a dozen and if you doubt the sheer quantity of easy readers out there, come on down to my library sometime. No, it's early chapter books I worry about. Around this time you want to start luring the kids with writing that's a little more sophisticated. Sure, you could hand them #43 in the Droon series and be done with it, but wouldn't you like to hand them a fun book that talks about other cultures and features sympathetic characters and realistic concerns? Basically what I'm saying is, strong literature written in an early chapter book format is a rare beastie. "Rickshaw Girl", by Mitali Perkins therefore manages to be all he stronger when you consider how rare a title it really is. Funny, smart, and chock full of the sights, sounds, and smells of Bangladesh, Perkins offers up a delightful book that distinguishes itself from the pack.
Ask Naima the one thing she's good at doing and she'll tell you right off the bat that it's alpanas. A complicated but balanced series of designs painted on her family's path and threshold, Naima tends to win her Bangladeshi village's prize for best alpana every International Mother Language Day. This year, however, is different. This year Naima's father isn't bringing in enough money to pay for the newly redesigned rickshaw he runs. Frustrated that as a girl she can't do anything to help the family earn more money, Naima makes a crucial mistake. One that might destroy her family's dreams for good. If she's to make it right, she must summon up her courage and, with the help of her friend Saleem, use her creativity to find a solution to her problems.
Sometimes it's nice to hear the story of a screw-up. No one's perfect, sure. We know that. But how often do you read a book in which the main character does something so cringeworthy that it has the readers, regardless of age, suffering the shame of a well-deserved embarrassment right along with the heroine? What Naima does (and I'm not going to give it away) is wrong. Yet she's a character you want to believe in. Her family situation is actually pretty dire, all things considered, and what with having a heroine who is less than perfect, you really feel you can root for Naima. Perkins has the enviable talent of knowing how to connect a reader to a character. There's a spark there. An understand that takes place. Alongside the believable and consistently interesting storyline, the book comes across as a keeper.
Now anyone can write a work of fiction off the top of their heads. And a couple people might even be able to make that work of fiction halfway decent reading. Imagine then the difficulties involved when one must write not only something interesting and well-put together, and not only an early chapter title, but also a Glossary of unfamiliar terms paired with illustrated images, and an Author's Note giving additional background on Bangladesh and the author's connection to it. All these things are greatly appreciated and easy to understand. And while a Bibliography or website or two wouldn't have been out of place, what we do have here is doggone swell.
Illustrator Jamie Hogan remains a bit of a mystery to me. A relative newcomer to the children's literary scene, Hogan's work makes me want to thump Charlesbridge Publishers soundly on the back in thanks. What a fruitful pairing. Hogan's style tends to be pastels on Canson paper, though they appear black and white in the book. It's almost an affected style. You can see the texture of the paper beneath the images she draws. Yet her characters are pitch perfect 100% of the time. In an interesting twist, Hogan chooses never to show the faces of Naima's mother and father. You see her sister, her pal Saleem, and even a random boy on the street, but the only glimpse you get of the parents is their hands. Only one adult appears in this story, and she's definitely not related to Naima in any way. So in a sense, Hogan has chosen to throw in her lot with the children. Her heroine is a strong girl with natural energy. When she sticks out her tongue in one scene, it is exactly the way a kid WOULD stick out their tongue. Hogan knows how to capture kids at their most natural. It shows in the story.
If there's a moral to this book it may be, "Stop and think before you act." Sound advice, by and large. In an age of high fantasy and the aforementioned 500 plus page texts, slim realistic novels like, "Rickshaw Girl", have to be especially good to get any of the attention they so richly deserve. I think Perkins and Hogan together accomplish that requirement with a seeming effortlessness. Consider this a necessary purchase to any library system, irregardless of collection size. A keeper through and through.