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Reading for Diwali 2017

Diwali begins today. In honor of the Festival of Lights, here are some books about the celebration of Diwali along with picture books and fiction by and about South Asian and South Asian American people. These books for young readers — all recommended at the time of their publication by The Horn Book Magazine and Guide — can be a part of a child’s holiday observation or an introduction to new traditions.

See also the Horn Book Magazine‘s starred review of You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (and our Five Questions for the author). And laugh along with Uma Krishnaswami’s Horn Book Magazine article “No Joke! Humor and Culture in Middle-Grade Books.”

Thanks always to our friends at Bharat Babies and Kitaab World, whose shared mission highlights children’s books by and about South Asian people and cultures and whose recommendations inform our list. And to Tara Books for continuing to send us their eye-catching titles for review consideration.

Nonfiction

Heiligman, Deborah Celebrate Diwali
32 pp. National Geographic 2006. ISBN 0-7922-5922-X LE ISBN 0-7922-5923-8

Gr. K-3 Holidays around the World series. This book uses short, simple sentences and large, colorful, well-captioned photographs to explain Diwali’s customs and traditions. Written with a global perspective in mind, the text’s use of the “we” voice (rather than “they”) makes the information seem more authentic and respectful. Recipes and a game are provided; an essay written by a religion professor is appended. Reading list, websites. Glos.

Heydlauff, Lisa Going to School in India
98 pp. Charlesbridge 2005. ISBN 1-57091-666-7

Gr. K-3 Photographs by Nitin Upadhye. Describing schools and students in many parts of this diverse nation, this volume offers more information about contemporary India than most books for children. Details about food, transportation, geographic regions, religion, economics, and political issues are woven into the text. The trendy but overbearing collage and design elements sometimes obscure the clear, vivid photos in this unique offering. Glos., ind.

Singh, Rina Diwali: Festival of Lights
95 pp. Orca 2016. ISBN 978-1-4598-1007-5 Ebook ISBN 978-1-4598-1008-2

Gr. 4-6 Orca Origins series. This book successfully expresses that Diwali is celebrated differently around the world. Hindu, Jain, and Sikh Diwali traditions are represented through photographs of celebrations, related legends, included recipes, and anecdotal narratives about real people. Though losing focus as it attempts to cover related topics such as Indian immigration, the book offers in-depth depictions of cultural and religious practices. Reading list, websites. Glos., ind.

Picture Books

Bajaj, Varsha This Is Our Baby, Born Today
32 pp. Penguin/Paulsen 2016. ISBN 978-0-399-16684-6

Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. “This is the Baby / wrinkled and gray. / This is the Baby / born today.” Lilting verses celebrate the birth of an elephant, noting the welcoming herd and natural environment awaiting it. With dip pens, India ink, and watercolor, Wheeler warmly if anthropomorphically captures the affectionate creatures amid India’s flora and fauna. The Indian American author adds a note about conservation and her connection with elephants.

Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale
32 pp. Roaring Brook/Porter 2013. ISBN 978-1-59643-378-6

Illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters. Along the way to her daughter’s house, Grandma talks three animals out of eating her by convincing them to wait for her return trip. Divakaruni’s retelling of a Bengali folktale evokes the oral tradition by frequent use of pattern and onomatopoeia. Waters’s mixed-media collages are perhaps too pretty, but they give a sense of depth through layering and textures.

Javaherbin, Mina Elephant in the Dark: Based on a Poem by Rumi
40 pp. Scholastic 2015. ISBN 978-0-545-63670-4

Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. When merchant Ahmad brings a mysterious creature to his village, curious villagers climb through a window in his barn, each touching just a part of the creature and leaping to conclusions about what it might be. Yelchin’s paintings balance the characteristic Persian style of repetitive patterns with lots of open space. The book should provide opportunities for discussions about perception.

Krishnaswami, Uma Out of the Way! Out of the Way!
32 pp. Groundwood 2012. ISBN 978-1-55498-130-4

Illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. This look at urban development manages to stay cheery and upbeat as an Indian village grows into a city. Traffic of all kinds, animals, and people keep moving on the road past a small tree that grows through the decades and retains its importance as a meeting place. Traditional and contemporary imagery is artfully combined in black line drawings and swaths of bright colors.

Makhijani, Pooja Mama’s Saris
32 pp. Little 2007. ISBN 978-0-316-01105-1

Illustrated by Elena Gomez. Readers can empathize with the Indian narrator, who longs to celebrate her seventh birthday by discarding her everyday Western clothes and, for the first time, wearing a sari just like Mama. Though the figures in the illustrations look stiff, the rich patterns and colors of the saris are eye-catching. A Hindi glossary and a note about saris (and playing “dress up”) are included.

Nayar, Nandini What Should I Make?
24 pp. Tricycle 2009. ISBN 978-1-58246-294-3

Illustrated by Proiti Roy. While preparing chapatis (Indian flat bread) with his mother, a young boy plays with the dough: a long rope becomes a snake; a patted-down ball, a mouse. But how will he prevent the animals from actually coming alive? Mom has the solution: “Roll it up, quick, quick!” Warm-toned illustrations keep attention centered squarely on mother and son. A recipe is included.

Rao, Sandhya My Mother’s Sari
24 pp. North-South 2006. ISBN 0-7358-2101-1

Illustrated by Nina Sabnani. Indian children playfully interact with the colorful textiles used for traditional women’s clothing, imaginatively comparing the fabrics to a train, river, rope, and hiding place. The warm feeling between mother and child is here presented through highly textured illustrations, which combine acrylic drawings with photographs of sari fabrics. The endpapers present diagrams and instructions for properly wrapping a sari.

Sehgal, Kabir and Sehgal, Surishtha The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk
40 pp. Simon/Beach Lane 2015. ISBN 978-1-4814-4831-4 Ebook ISBN 978-1-4814-4832-1

Illustrated by Jess Golden. In an amusing adaptation of the children’s song, young readers ride in an Indian tuk tuk (also known as an auto rickshaw) and encounter a smattering of the subcontinent’s sights including the traditional “namaste-ji” greeting, the holy cows that wander freely, and a Diwali celebration. The author’s note and glossary explain these elements simply. Festive watercolor, pastel, and colored-pencil illustrations enhance the ride.

Sheth, Kashmira Monsoon Afternoon
32 pp. Peachtree 2008. ISBN 978-1-56145-455-6

Illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi. During monsoon season in India, a boy and his dadaji (grandfather) spend a day sailing paper boats in a washtub, taking a walk, and swinging on a banyan tree. This paean to the pleasures of intergenerational companionship has universal appeal. Illustrations in soft colors display the warm-hearted sentiment of the text. An author’s note gives more information about monsoon season.

Sheth, Kashmira Sona and the Wedding Game
32 pp. Peachtree 2015. ISBN 978-1-56145-735-9

Illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi. During her sister’s wedding, a child in an East Indian American family participates in many cultural practices that are new to her. One such tradition involves a little mischief and humor: hiding the groom’s shoes. Soft watercolor paintings, some of which are framed in a recurring golden pattern, portray lush, gilded saris and a loving, happy family. An author’s note provides cultural background.

Wolf, Gita The Enduring Ark
20 pp. Tara 2013. ISBN 978-93-80340-18-0

Illustrated by Joydeb Chitrakar. An accordion-style pictorial narration of the Flood unfolds to a nine-foot spread of Noah and his wife gathering creatures; the reverse side follows the Ark to its landing. Wolf’s well-phrased account — an Indian version of the story common to many cultures — is generally straightforward, a fine complement to Chitrakar’s striking art in the Bengal Patua style of scroll painting.

Wolf, Gita Gobble You Up!
40 pp. Tara 2013. ISBN 978-81-923171-4-4

Illustrated by Sunita. After gulping down animal after animal, greedy Jackal bursts (he survives, as do his victims). It’s a surefire tale made splendid by gorgeous illustrations and bookmaking. Meticulously, the art is silkscreened onto sturdy kraft paper and hand bound. The tactile effect of the flat silkscreen on the faintly mottled paper is a treat — a true work of art.

Younger Fiction

Sheth, Kashmira The No-Dogs-Allowed Rule
117 pp. Whitman 2012. ISBN 978-0-8075-5694-8

Illustrated by Carl Pearce. East-Indian-American third-grader Ishan wants a dog but first must convince his mother to rescind the no-dogs-allowed rule. From making her parathas bread to pretending he is a dog, Ishan tries everything, with comically disastrous results. However, when their neighbor collapses, Ishan proves his dependability by calling 911 and caring for his dog. Ishan’s relatable longings and efforts are accompanied by expressive black-and-white illustrations.

Singh, Vandana Younguncle Comes to Town
154 pp. Viking 2006. ISBN 0-670-06051-8

Illustrated by B. M. Kamath. Younguncle, renowned for adventuring, promises to brighten up the monsoon season when he visits his nephew and nieces. Singh’s lively and often hilarious text is written with vocabulary normally reserved for older readers; for full comedic effect, it might best be read aloud. A few spot illustrations help readers picture the contemporary northern Indian setting and the fast-moving events.

Intermediate Fiction

Bajaj, Varsha Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood
250 pp. Whitman 2014. ISBN 978-0-8075-6363-2

Lifelong Texan Abby Spencer, thirteen, had no idea that her absent father is a Bollywood movie star — and none of his millions of adoring fans know he has a daughter. When she departs for Mumbai to finally meet him, Abby doesn’t know what she’s getting into. The mostly lighthearted plot holds few surprises, but Mumbai’s beauty — and poverty — are creditably developed.

Banerjee, Anjali Looking for Bapu
167 pp. Random/Lamb 2006. ISBN 0-385-74657-1 LE ISBN 0-385-90894-6

From India, eight-year-old Anu’s grandfather brought stories of gods, Indian cooking, and devotion to his grandson. When Bapu has a stroke and dies, Anu’s loss and guilt (he thinks he should’ve run faster for help) are overwhelming; thus begins his quest to bring Bapu back. Banerjee’s novel is set right after 9/11 — a fitting background for this story about surviving an unexpected, shocking loss.

Brahmachari, Sita Jasmine Skies
332 pp. Whitman 2014. ISBN 978-0-8075-3782-4

Part-Indian girl Mira Levenson travels from London to visit her mom’s cousin and her daughter in Kolkata for the first time. Mira and cousin Priya are both fourteen; their mothers haven’t seen each other since they were fourteen, and the girls are determined to find out why. This absorbing and satisfying sequel to Mira in the Present Tense easily stands alone.

Chari, Sheela Vanished
329 pp. Hyperion 2011. ISBN 978-1-4231-3163-2

Neela has a hard time reconciling her East Indian heritage with her life in America; playing the veena, a traditional Indian stringed instrument, is one way she does so. When the veena mysteriously disappears, Neela is desperate to find it, traveling as far as India to solve the mystery. The story engagingly addresses cultural differences and musical aspirations while providing a compelling mystery.

Collodi, Carlo The Patua Pinocchio
189 pp. Tara 2015. ISBN 978-93-83145-12-6

Illustrated by Swarna Chitrakar. Translated by Carol Della Chiesa. Edited by V. Geetha. Della Chiesa’s excellent 1925 translation of Collodi’s 1883 classic is trimmed to about half its original length for a well-paced version of the unruly marionette’s adventures. This handsome Indian edition features traditional Patua scroll paintings; stylized compositions are made eloquent by energetic slashes of black line and a rich palette. A curious cross-cultural matching of art and iconic tale.

Gavin, Jamila Tales from India: Stories of Creation and the Cosmos
88 pp. Candlewick/Templar 2011. ISBN 978-0-7636-5564-8

Illustrated by Amanda Hall. Ten stories of Hindu gods and goddesses, kings and queens, including “How Ganesh Got His Elephant’s Head” and “The Birth of Lord Krishna,” are lyrically told. Highly detailed gouache paintings, inspired by eighteenth-century Indian miniatures, highlight both magical elements and earthly life. Decorative borders and golden elements enhance the attractive book, but no sources are provided. Glos.

Hiranandani, Veera The Whole Story of Half a Girl
213 pp. Delacorte 2012. ISBN 978-0-385-74128-6 LE ISBN 978-0-375-98995-7

When her dad loses his job, sixth-grader Sonia Nadhamuni leaves a sheltered private school for public school and must suddenly field questions about her unusual name, dark complexion, and Jewish/Indian heritage; meanwhile, her family changes as her father grapples with depression. Though Hiranandani’s tackling of weighty topics falters, Sonia’s uncertainty of where she belongs — or where she wants to belong — resonates.

Krishnaswami, Uma Book Uncle and Me
151 pp. Groundwood 2016. ISBN 978-1-55498-808-2

Illustrated by Julianna Swaney. Nine-year-old Yasmin is horrified when her friend Book Uncle, who runs a free lending library on a street corner in her neighborhood, is told he must shut it down. She enlists friends, teachers, and the media to fight the ban. Krishnaswami effortlessly evokes everyday life in this Indian import, incorporating details of India’s food, transportation, commerce, and more to paint a vibrant picture of Yasmin’s world.

Krishnaswami, Uma Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh
276 pp. Lee/Tu 2017. ISBN 978-1-60060-261-0

In WWII California, Maria discovers empowerment on the softball field. Meanwhile, her Indian father and Mexican mother struggle to make ends meet as sharecroppers barred from buying the land they farm. Maria and friends from similar mixed marriages help their parents and themselves by speaking out and fighting discrimination. Krishnaswami creates a relatable heroine, and the clean, nuanced prose doesn’t shy away from the political.

Perkins, Mitali Tiger Boy
140 pp. Charlesbridge 2015. ISBN 978-1-58089-660-3

Illustrated by Jamie Hogan. On India’s Sunderbans islands, Neel, a boy with promise, might earn a scholarship to a boarding school in Kolkata. Neel’s father joins the hunt for a valuable escaped tiger cub in order to pay for a tutor. Fast-paced action, references to the local flora and fauna, and clearly laid-out moral dilemmas come together in a satisfying way in this environmental adventure. Glos.

Weeks, Sarah and Varadarajan, Gita Save Me a Seat
232 pp. Scholastic 2016. ISBN 978-0-545-84660-8

Used to being the top student, fifth grader Ravi (“fresh off the boat” from Bangalore) is furious when he’s sent to the resource room with Joe (whose auditory processing disorder makes school challenging). Determined to prove his superiority, Ravi befriends bully Dillon, while Joe hopes to get through the day without humiliation at Dillon’s hands. Short chapters alternate between Joe’s and Ravi’s distinctive, engaging voices. Glos.

Young Adult

Arni, Samhita Sita’s Ramayana
152 pp. Groundwood 2011. ISBN 978-1-55498-145-8

Illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar. Bold lines and vivid colors draw readers through the panels of this ancient Hindu epic (even when the text gets a bit long for a graphic novel). Arni presents the story of Queen Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the Demon King, and her rescue by Rama, aided by Hanuman the wise monkey. This interpretation’s feminist bent is documented in an afterword.

Daswani, Kavita Lovetorn
250 pp. HarperTeen 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-167311-5

Shalini has been betrothed to Vikram since the two were small children in India. When Shalini’s family relocates from India to Los Angeles, they struggle to adjust to American ways — and Shalini struggles over her desire for another boy. The cultural insights Daswani offers provide a compelling and unexpected twist on romance in this humorous, heartfelt novel. Glos.

Hidier, Tanuja Desai Bombay Blues
555 pp. Scholastic/Push 2014. ISBN 978-0-545-38478-0 Ebook ISBN 978-0-545-63387-1

Although this sequel stands alone, fans of Born Confused will most appreciate this second book about East Indian American Dimple Lala, now studying photography at NYU. She, her parents, and DJ boyfriend Karsh travel to Bombay for a family wedding — or so they think. Dimple’s complex, wordy, sensory-filled narration is deeply engaging for those who enjoy Hidier’s distinctive style of lyrical language play.

Kanakia, Rahul Enter Title Here
343 pp. Hyperion 2016. ISBN 978-1-4847-2387-6

Adderall-popping “study-machine” Reshma Kapoor will succeed; no one — not parents, peers, or teachers — will stand in her way. Presented as an autobiographical novel penned by Reshma for her admission to Stanford, this is a densely metafictional tale told in almost frantic real-time. While ruthlessly diabolical Reshma’s narration is self-aggrandizing and fascinatingly unreliable, she tells a darkly relevant story about academic fairness, achievement, and honesty.

Keshni Kashyap "Tina's Mouth"Kashyap, Keshni Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary
247 pp. Houghton 2012. ISBN 978-0-618-94519-1

Illustrated by Mari Araki. Tina ponders “personal existential identity” and the universe in this graphic novel, a journaling project for her English class on existential philosophy. She writes (and draws) about her Indian American family; the sudden, painful end to her closest friendship; and Big Questions about life, meaning, and identity. Tina’s a relatable protagonist, and her unusual perspective is enlightening; the illustrations are expressive.

Menon, Sandhya When Dimple Met Rishi
380 pp. Simon Pulse 2017. ISBN 978-1-4814-7868-7 Ebook ISBN 978-1-4814-7870-0

Rishi is excited to meet Dimple, a girl his parents have chosen for him to marry; fiercely independent Dimple knows nothing of the arrangement. After a bad first impression, the two, with differing attitudes toward their religion and Indian American culture, fall in love at their summer web development program in San Francisco. Alternating narration provides deep character insight in this delightful, observant rom-com.

Murray, Kirsty, Dhar, Payal, and Ray, Anita, editors Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean
225 pp. McElderry 2017. ISBN 978-1-4814-7057-5 Ebook ISBN 978-1-4814-7059-9

Indian and Australian authors worked together across distance as well as separately to create the works in this enthralling anthology of feminist speculative-fiction pieces that are both dazzling and disorienting. Spanning continents, cultures, genres, and even formats, the ambitious and fascinating contributions are each successful individually in craft and invention, even if they don’t quite hang together as a unified collection.

Perkins, Mitali Monsoon Summer
261 pp. Delacorte 2004. ISBN 0-385-73123-X LE ISBN 0-385-90147-X

Half-white, half-Indian, Jazz sees herself (unfavorably) as “Amazon woman,” the complete opposite of her petite, do-gooder mom, but on a trip to India, Jazz starts helping others, and her distorted self-image gets an overhaul. The funny and honest first-person narrative also treats readers to a satisfying (if predictable) romance when newly confident Jazz confesses her feelings to Steve, the unrequited love of her life.

Venkatraman, Padma A Time to Dance
312 pp. Penguin/Paulsen 2014. ISBN 978-0-399-25710-0

This free-verse novel set in contemporary India stars Veda, a teenage Bharatanatyam dancer. After a tragic accident, one of Veda’s legs must be amputated below the knee. Veda tries a series of customized prosthetic legs, determined to return to dancing as soon as possible. Brief lines, powerful images, and motifs of sound communicate Veda’s struggle to accept her changed body.

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