Elem. – A Garden in my Hands

Sriram, Meera. A Garden in my Hands. Alfred A. Knopf, 2023. 978-0-593-42710-1. $18.99. 40 p. Grades K-2.

This beautiful picture book shows a mother applying henna to her daughter’s hands in preparation for a family wedding. As she decorates with intricate designs, the mother tells the young girl stories of her own wedding, and their extended family. Once the henna has been applied the young girl must not touch anything or put her hands down until the henna has dried. This is hard for the girl, who accidentally smudges the design a bit, and then gets henna on her mother’s scarf. The girl is worried she will ruin the stories woven into the henna. Mama is ever patient, and reassures her that all will be well. Mama helps the young girl to eat, drink, brush her teeth and wrap her hands before bed. In the morning the henna has dried and the girl is delighted with the design, which she imagines is an entire garden in her hands. The entire family gathers to celebrate the wedding, filled with pride in the stories of their homeland. Though the henna will eventually fade, the girl understands the family stories will be in her heart forever. The author’s note includes information on henna traditions throughout the world.

THOUGHTS: The bright and bold pinks, purples and deep greens used in Sandhya Prabhat’s illustrations add delight to this sweet mother-daughter relationship story. The continued theme about family stories is beautiful and the story is filled with joy and family love. A gorgeous addition for children’s library collections.

Picture Book 

YA – I Kick and I Fly

Gupta, Ruchira. I Kick and I Fly. Scholastic Press, 2023. 978-1-338-82509-1. $18.99. 336 p. Grades 7-12.

Heera comes from the Nat clan in the Red Light district of Forjesganj, India. Even though she and her older brother Salman go to school, Heera gets distracted because she is so hungry, tired, and dirty. Living in poverty, she desperately wants to escape what seems to be her fate, a life of prostitution. Her mother does back-breaking work pulverizing stones on the highway; her father drinks and gambles away what little money they have. A boiled egg is a rare treat for her little sisters. The whole lane is under the thumb of sex traffickers, Ravi Lala, and the local police officer, Suraj Sharma, who is also the father of Heera’s best friend, Rosy. As the annual Kali Mela Fair draws closer to the Girls’ Bazaar, Heera’s father sees no other alternative but to have his fourteen-year-old daughter join the ranks of his niece, Mira Di, as a sex worker. Thankfully, the school’s kung fu team at the nearby girl’s hostel and especially its teacher, Rina Di give Heera respite and empowerment. She takes to kung fu and its philosophy of being in tune with one’s body easily; it seems agility is in her blood, a maternal descendant of people known for their acrobatic feats. As she begins to win competitions, her confidence builds and belief that another type of life for her family is possible grows. When Heera’s life becomes endangered, she moves into the hostel and, for the first time, knows the luxury of sleeping on a bed, having enough food to eat, and getting enough hours to sleep. As her skill at kung fu sharpens, she sees her success changing her parents. When she learns that Rosy is being trafficked, she joins forces with other survivors to rescue her even though it may jeopardize her standing in a special kung fu competition in New York.  This compelling book tells a harrowing story at a rapid pace and with a delicate hand. The striking contrast of evil and kindness and the vivid descriptions of conditions of abject poverty is tempered with the well-drawn characterizations of major and minor characters. The author’s note reveals that the plot is not all imagination, but based on similar real-life events. I Kick and I Fly is an important book that should hold a spot in every high school library.

THOUGHTS: This book has a lot of heart, probably because it is projecting the truth. It also contains a lot about kung fu and honors Bruce Lee by inserting his sayings and philosophy. One part where the reader may have to suspend belief is Heera’s sophisticated language as she narrates the story. The background on Heera’s education, her inability to keep up with her studies because of lack of food and sleep, deems it unlikely that her vocabulary would be as rich as Gupta presents it. But that’s okay. Readers need to feel her fear, witness the despair of her family, ache with hope at each new achievement. All characters are Indian. Though it does not spare the horrors of sex trafficking, no acts of sex are described. Mira Di, the cousin who has her brothel set up in the back of the houses, experiences physical abuse as well as the sexual abuse, but the reader finds this out after that action takes place. Violence happens, but Heera triumphs with her kung fu moves. I Kick and I Fly can foster awareness of sex trafficking, poverty, injustice, and inequality.

Realistic Fiction  

Elem. – Holi Hai!

Soundar, Chitra. Holi Hai! Illustrated by Darshika Varma. Albert Whitman, 2022.  978-0-807-53357-4.  Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-3.

Holi is around the corner and Guari’s family is preparing by making color, or gulal, for their celebration. Guari wants to make yellow…but ends up disappointed when she randomly chooses red instead. Though her mother reminds her that, “all colors are part of spring,” Guari still doesn’t want to make red or help her family members with their color–until her grandfather tell the legend of Holika and Prahlada and reminds her that love is stronger than the anger in her heart. Back matter includes further information on the festival of Holi, a glossary, and recipes for homemade colors.

THOUGHTS: Holi Hai! shares the festival of Holi with readers in a manner that will appeal to those who celebrate the festival themselves and those who want to know more. The author, Chitra Soundar, does an excellent job blending Guari’s storyi with information that helps all readers celebrate and understand the holiday. Darshika Varma’s vibrant illustrations give life to Guari’s story and the legend of Holika and Prahlada that grandfather tells. The contemporary feel of the illustrations reinforces the relevance of the book in today’s world. Highly recommended for any collections seeking books about Holi with broad appeal.  

Picture Book          Hannah J. Thomas, Central Bucks SD

YA – The Ivory Key

Raman, Akshaya. The Ivory Key. Clarion Books, 2022. 978-0-358-46833-2. $18.99. 384 p. Grades 7-12.

Magic in Ashoka is running out. Vira, the young maharani, is desperate to keep this secret from the rest of the country. Her only hope is to find the Ivory Key and live up to her mother’s legacy. Legend says the key will lead to a new source of magic. However, Vira cannot find the key on her own, and she isn’t the only one who is after it. Vira’s siblings, Ronak, Kaleb, and Riya, embark on this adventure with her, but the siblings have their own plans for the key. For Kalab, his knowledge of the key freed him from his prison cell, and his involvement isn’t so much as a choice as it is a path to freedom. For Ronak, he sees it as his escape from his royal duties and knows others who would pay handsomely for it, and although Riya has returned to her siblings, she believes that all of the people of Ashoka deserve this magic and longs to return to her new family of thieves fighting against the royal family. Four siblings, and one key. If they find it, will this new magic be enough to save both their country and their family?

THOUGHTS: In this Indian inspired fantasy, readers will enjoy the adventure that the four conflicting siblings embark on together as well as the mystery, traps, and puzzles surrounding the ivory key. The surprise ending should leave readers impatiently waiting for the final book in this duology. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – Omar Rising

Saeed, Aisha. Omar Rising. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022. 978-0-593-10858-1. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

This book follows Omar, childhood friend of Amal from Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound, in a new story about a poor student going away to an expensive boarding school. Amal and the rest of Omar’s community is overjoyed that his hard work has given him the opportunity to receive such an exclusive education, but Omar quickly realizes that many inequities exist for “scholarship” students. Even though Omar is a thoughtful, hardworking student who does everything he is asked to do at his new school, he and the other scholarship students can’t seem to get ahead in a system that is stacked against them. Eventually, the entire student body must come together to support Omar in a system that was never designed to allow people to move beyond their socioeconomic status. With the support of his home family, his school friends, and even the unexpected support of some of his teachers, Omar eventually discovers who he really is and all the things he can do with his opportunities in life. 

THOUGHTS: Omar is easy to root for, and his growth and hard work throughout the book are very inspiring. The way his friends support him at the end of the story was heartwarming, and the power of community is on full display in this book. Glimpses into the life of servants and people who work hard but cannot advance in society are sure to make students think about parallels they see to similar situations in their own life. 

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Omar, the son of a servant in a Pakistani village, is excited to start at the prestigious Ghalib Academy for Boys. The boarding school will provide him with so many educational opportunities, and he cannot wait to be a part of the soccer team and the astronomy club. However, when he arrives, he discovers that, as a scholarship student, he’s not allowed to join any clubs or activities during his first year at school. Instead, he has to work in the kitchens to earn his keep and get even higher grades than the other students. If he doesn’t succeed, he will be sent home. Frustrated, Omar and the other scholarship students set out to fight the injustice and inequity of the system and learn many life lessons along the way.

THOUGHTS: Omar Rising is a companion to Amal Unbound, but you can read each as a stand alone novel. Readers will be rooting for Omar as they feel his frustration toward the unfairness of his status as a scholarship student at Ghalib Academy. Written by a Pakistani author, this book also brings awareness to the inequities that exist for students around the world, and it’s a must have for any middle grade collection. 

Realistic Fiction          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

Elem. – Word Travelers and the Taj Mahal Mystery

Haldar, Raj. Word Travelers and the Taj Mahal Mystery. Sourcebooks, 2021. 978-1-728-22205-9. 128 p. $5.99. Grades 1-3. 

Best friends Eddie and Molly-Jean (MJ) enjoy spending their Saturdays together playing games, watching movies, and having sleepovers. One day, a discussion about the meaning of the word “pajamas’’ leads the pair to discover an old book on word origins compiled by Eddie’s great-grandfather, a famous etymologist. When they open the book (which they nickname the Awesome Enchanted Book) to the entry on “pajama” they are magically transported to India, the country where the word originated. There they meet Dev, who is searching for an ancient family treasure in order to rebuild the local school, which was destroyed in a recent typhoon. Eddie and MJ team up with Dev to find the treasure. But they have competition–Mr. Raffles, the villain of the story, is also on the hunt for the riches! Working together, they decipher clues (with the help of the Awesome Enchanted Book, of course), race across the city, explore hidden passageways, and try to outsmart Mr. Raffles–but will they locate the treasure? Readers will learn about Indian culture as well as many words originating in the country. Bold words in the text can be found in a words origins glossary. The first volume in a projected series, readers will look forward to Eddie and MJ’s next adventure.

THOUGHTS: While readers may be drawn in by the mystery/adventure elements of the plot, they also will enjoy learning about the field of etymology and the origins and history of many words we use in everyday life. This series would be an ideal suggestion for fans of The Magic Treehouse books. Recommended.

Mystery          Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

Elem. – Chaiwala!

Maheshwari, Priti Birla. Chaiwala! Owlkids Books, 2021. 978-1-771-47368-2. $18.95. Grades K-2.

While changing from one train to another, there is nothing better to do than to drink some chai from the chaiwala while waiting! A young girl runs up to chaiwala, ready to watch as he makes some tea for all of the travelers. She smells the delicious aromas of the chai and enjoys a cup while waiting for the train.

THOUGHTS: A fun read for younger students to learn about what a chaiwala is and how they make their tea! This book may inspire a young reader to try some chai for themselves!

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

YA – Sisters of the Snake

Nanua, Sasha, and Sarena Nanua. Sisters of the Snake. HarperTeen. 2021. 978-0-062-98559-0. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Ria is a street urchin. A nothing that is just trying to survive and get out of this terrible town, away from where she is soon to be forced into the army. Princess Rian feels the same way, just slightly different. She is looking at the chance to be free to prove herself and her worth for her kingdom. When these two girls unexpectedly meet, they find out something shocking; they look identical! They decide they must be sisters… and each hopes to achieve something when they trade places.

THOUGHTS: A fun cultural fantasy novel. The first in a series, as this book ended on a cliff-hanger. The excitement for what happens next with these two magical sisters will pull at readers and have them wishing for the next novel!

Fantasy          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – Lali’s Feather

Zia, Farhana. Lali’s Feather. Peachtree, 2020. 978-1-682-63129-4. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

Lali is a young girl living in India who finds a feather on the ground. She asks a number of birds if this feather belongs to them. A rooster, crow, peacock, and other birds deny that the plain feather is theirs. Lali then shows that the feather is useful and uses it to write, sweep, and even to tickle her father’s feet. Then, the feather catches the wind and blows away and the distraught Lali runs after it. With the help of her bird friends, the feather is retrieved and the next day, Lali finds a button. The digitally created illustrations by Stephanie Fizer Coleman are colorful and engaging. The artist gives a hint of the Indian landscape and culture in the drawings.

THOUGHTS: This story is a good read aloud and could be a discussion starter for ideas about what Lali will do next with the button. A supplemental purchase for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

YA – Of Curses and Kisses

Menon, Sandya. Of Curses and Kisses. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-41754-0. 361 p. $18.99. Grades 6-12. 

Princess Jaya Rao, heiress to India’s last royal family, has always put duty first. Young Indian women should conform, they should not cause a scene or do anything like fraternizing with boys or using foul language that would hurt the family’s image. When her younger sister Isha is pictured in tabloids drinking and kissing a mechanic, the family’s name is in jeopardy. Jaya and Isha leave for Aspen to an elite boarding school called St. Rosetta’s to try and let the whole thing blow over. The thing is, St. Rosetta’s is currently the school of Grey Emerson, or Lord Northcliff, of the family with which the Raos have been feuding for generations. Jaya knows that Grey leaked the photos to ruin their family, and now she knows just the way to get back at him: make him fall in love and break his heart.

THOUGHTS: An artful Beauty and the Beast retelling done only the way Sandhya Menon can. Get a glimpse into the life of the aristocracy, traditions and all, and learn how to let yourself be happy.

Fantasy (Realistic, Fairytale)          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD