A Child’s-Eye View of History: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

On the day in 1947 that she and her twin brother turn 12, Nisha yearns for her mother: “It was the day we came and you left…” She begins to write a diary each night. In it, she composes letters to her mother, even as the country around her fractures in the historical event known as the Partition of India.

Veera Hiranandani (see my 2012 Process Talk with her) has created a sensitive, watchful child character in Nisha, who embodies the fracturing of the country, because her mother was Muslim and her father and his family are Hindu. It is a month out from the independence days of the two newly created countries, and Nisha’s letters unpack her uncovering of family secrets, the relationships they leave behind and the perilous journey they must undertake to escape a place that is no longer home.
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At another level, the simple, direct first person narrative in these letters delicately probes a young girl’s dawning understanding of how the world works:

I didn’t want the new India. I wanted the old one that was my home.

As well the letters document the events unfolding around Nisha, as she sees how hate can raise its ugly head readily in a place where it didn’t exist before. Or did it? Was it always there, waiting for the machinations of governments and politicians to give it permission to grow? At its most personal, this is a story of a sister and brother fleeing with their doctor father and their unwilling grandmother, facing along the way the hazards of starvation, illness, and frenzied mobs fueled by religious hatred.

History writ small in this way reels us close into itself, with passages like this:

But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.

Here is a fictional rendering of the author’s family history. Its epistolary form makes it intimate and tender. It renders one of the world’s great tragedies accessible to young readers. In the end, this Newbery Honor-winning novel reminds us that love can be present even when it isn’t verbally expressed. It can bind people together. It can give rise to generosity and kindness in the midst of suspicion and hate.

 

The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

kiranmala-reveal-cvrBefore its publication, I did my best to get my hands on a copy of The Serpent’s Secret. I don’t know why it should be so complicated to get a review copy from New York to a Canadian address! Between mailing issues and the promise of a copy via Scholastic Canada, and the failure of the e-galley to open….let’s just say it’s taken me half a year to open the book and start reading.

I was hooked right from the first words in the dedication:

To immigrant parents and children everywhere–who imagine an idea called home into being through the telling of stories.

I was hooked by the character, twelve-year-old Kiranmala of Parsippany, New Jersey. Ordinary girl, right? Maybe not. Because Kiran’s swiftly sucked into a spiraling story in which everything she knew to be reality is upended. Her parents are gone. There’s a demon, a rakkhosh, eating everything in her kitchen. And who are those guys dressed in funny Halloween costumes? In short order, she’s charged with no less a responsibility than saving the world. Each character is delightfully and lovingly crafted. Narrated in the first person,  the book hums with Kiran’s personality, every scene infused with purpose, sly humor, and an unerring sense of the middle grade character on the brink.

And I was hooked, finally, by the underlying worldview in Sayantani’s book. This is a world in which immigrant identity isn’t the issue, and one in which the cultural particulars not only ring utterly true but are regionally specific, going beyond the all too common representation of the entire subcontinent as one monocultural space. And there’s the girl at the center of the story. She’s the one who must be in control, even (maybe especially) when the ground under her feet has just given way! Magic can happen, the book suggests, in your space, wherever that is. We’re all in it together, if we just let ourselves ride into a destiny waiting for us to take charge of it!

Every girl at that puzzling, promising, in-between age of 12 ought to read this first book in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Look for Book 2, The Game of Stars.

 

 

The Legacy of a Newbery Winner from 1928

gayneckI’m grateful to Pooja Makhijani for including my comments in her terrific article in The Atlantic on 1928 Newbery winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji. It made me think about how politics, the laws of nations, and the upheavals of history can disrupt the narratives of people’s lives. We are restless beings, humans. Always have been, ever since the days we streamed out of Africa and ended up in the remotest corners of the planet.  Religion and politics, tyranny and dictatorships have tried to contain us, sometimes successfully. Sometimes we have managed to burst out from behind the restraints they’ve tried to impose. Sometimes only poets, artists, and novelists have the courage to speak the truth.

In 1928, when Dhan Gopal Mukerji went to receive his Newbery medal, he had to hide behind a stand of trees. The award had to be kept secret until the announcement. In a crowd of white librarians, his presence would have given away his status as the winner.

In our time, you’ll find a good number of brown-skinned attendees at the Newbery awards announcements. Yet surprisingly, few of the well-informed, highly educated people at those gatherings today will have even heard of Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Makhijani writes:

…90 years on, this once-celebrated book, which has remained in print since its publication, is rarely mentioned in discussions of racial and ethnic diversity in books for kids, as if Mukerji were some sort of aberration rather than an early chapter of what could have been.

Had the immigration laws not clamped down upon Asians after 1917, Pooja asks, what would books for children look like in the United States today? We may as well ask, what would society look like? Might it be kinder, more inclusive? The story of the bicultural Yuba City families, too, (of which my novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh is a fictional rendering), is largely forgotten. We seem to want to erase the complications of the past, instead of learning from them.

Children’s books constitute an important layer of self for every literate adult. The fuses they light burn long into the future. The rise of xenophobia in American society suggests that we desperately need the adults of tomorrow to be endowed with rich imaginations, empathy for others, and the will to overcome petty differences. Acknowledging and honoring the history of our own field can only help us give tomorrow’s adults the gifts that writers are uniquely able to offer–foresight, intuition, the long view, compassion.