Set in contemporary India, this is an inspiring and feel good read laced with magic and mysticism.
Eleven year old Asha lives in Moormanali in the foothills of the Himalayas. She has a happy life but she’s worried. Her beloved Papa is away from home, working in a factory in the city, and his letters have stopped. They haven’t heard from him for almost four months and, more importantly, they haven’t received any of his wages. Asha’s Ma has resorted to borrowing money but the ruthless money lender is now demanding repayments – if they don’t pay the loan off in full by Divali, they will lose their home and their farm and have no option but to move abroad to England. Asha is determined to stop this happening. Inspired by a majestic bird that she believes is the reincarnated spirit of her nanijee (grandmother), she and her best friend (twelve year old, Jeevan) set out on perilous journey to find her father and save her home.
Winner of the 2017 Times / Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition, this book is a superb portal to another culture. While Asha’s first person voice is strong, and her friend Jeevan practical jumps off the page, it is the world building that makes this book really stand out. There’s a handy glossary of Hindi and Punjabi words at the start of the book but this isn’t really necessary because debut author, Jasbinder Bilan, sketches Asha’s world with such skill that we can easily assimilate the meaning of the unfamiliar phrases.
The plot takes the structure of a traditional quest story but, again, it is the setting that makes this special. There’s the drama and magnificence of the Himalayas, a terrifying close encounter with a tiger, and a trip to the highest temple of the world. I suspect more than a handful of readers will be inspired with a wish to visit, or learn more, about India.
Throughout the book these details of real Indian life are blended with magic and mysticism. Indeed, the magical realism of grandmother’s bird (a lamagaia) is the probably key to this book’s appeal. Like Asha, I was always on the lookout for the spirit bird’s next appearance and my heart swelled whenever she appeared. I was particularly excited when, at the low point in the story after poor Asha and Jeevan have been trapped for three weeks in a junkyard, Asha finds a tea tin painted with the image of a her spirit bird. This gives her hope and is shortly followed by a wonderful scene where a whole swarm of lamagaia appear. Even better still is the transition Jeevan makes during the course of the book, from sceptic about the spirit bird to strong advocate of Asha’s bond with her ancestors.
Added to all this, there’s a satisfying and happy conclusion to the story – including a triumphant return home on a decorated elephant – that makes this an inspiring and feel good read.
If you enjoyed this and are looking for another middle-grade story that could open a window to other country, why not try The Snow Angel by Lauren St John.
Publication date: February 2019
Publisher: Chicken House