Toby: Naji and the Mystery of the Dig, by Vahid Imani
This book is set in Iran in 1942, and is about a normal girl who lives in a house, but she believes in magical creatures. One day, she sees that there are random men digging a hole in her garden. She asks her sister what is happening, and her sister replies that they are digging a hole for a new outhouse. Naji immediately gets agitated, and worries that they'll disturb an evil force. So, Naji starts watching - then her mother shouts to wash up.
A few days later, a man comes over to fix the pool. Naji believes that he is a looloo (a kind of child-stealing demon), because he has the name of one of the looloos. She is told to go and give him some tea, so she goes and sees if he is actually going to take children from their parents. Even though she is not stolen, she still wants to learn what is down that hole - she feels like some monsters will pop straight out of it. Is she right, or is she not?
My favourite part in this book is where Naji goes to see if the man that was there fixing was actually evil, because, while she is going to see him, the book describes all her thoughts. I like this book, because it has a very wide age range, and is fun for probably even grown ups to read. It has a lot of imagination for the 150 pages it is, and it has a lot about Persian culture in it.
Toby: It Ain't So Awful, Falafel, by Firoozeh Dumas
How many times have you moved? If you have, you'll know that it's very hectic. In this story, Falafel is fed up with moving. Of course, Falafel isn't her real name. Her real name is Zomorod (Cindy) Yousefzadeh. She gets called Falafel, because her next-next door neighbour is a little bit crazy. Zomorod's parents are from Iran, and it's the late 1970s, a time when there is a revolution in Iran, and the Shah is going into exile. When the revolution happens, there had been a Persian Shah for 2,500 years. Falafel is just a normal girl who wants to make friends and have fun. Her parents don't speak English, so Falafel has to translate for them, and she does not enjoy that. Zomorod changes her name to Cindy, to fit in better. When the revolution happens, people in America don't like Iran, and her father loses his job. They don't know what to do.
At the beginning, there is a dedication: "To all the kids who don’t belong, whatever the reason." This book is about and for kids who don't belong, and I hope that all children going through not belonging anywhere will find friends and be happy.
Sabine: The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani
When her father dies unexpectedly, a young woman and her mother are forced to seek the charity of extended family. The uncle, an accomplished carpet knotter, takes the young woman (we never discover her name) under her wing, and, against better judgement and his wife's advice, teaches her to design, plan and execute her own carpets. Despite her obvious giftedness and skill, this is not a rags to riches story, instead, a familiar plot of hardship, unfair treatment, and unlucky circumstances.
The book takes place in Persia around the 1600s, and describes to the reader the sights and sounds of ancient Persia. The heroine is all too human, with flaws, spirit, and anger. Following her life story made me in turn want to weep for her and shout at her. I did enjoy the detailed reference to carpet knotting, appreciating the research that must have gone into these sections.
Toby: The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida
The Reason I Jump doesn’t have a storyline, it’s a book written by an autistic boy about what it is like to be autistic. He was 13 when he wrote the book. He explains that he learnt to speak with other people by using a board with letters and numbers on, that he could point to, so that he could have a conversation. He says that he can’t control the noises he makes, and he forgets things quite quickly, so he might do things that somebody told him not to do. He’s not trying to be naughty, he’s just forgetful and is trying out new things for him. I would recommend the book to anybody who is a parent or relative to an autistic person, because I think it is really important to understand, although Naoki also explains that not every person who is autistic is the same. I think it is really important that Naoki has written “The Reason I Jump”, because it is written by somebody who is autistic, rather than somebody who is not autistic trying to explain what it’s like. It would be a great book to have in a school library, and I also like that it was written by a child.
Sabine: The Nakano Thrift Shop, by Hiromi Kawakami
I read other reviews about this book, many very positive, and one that calls it "mundane", as though that were inherently negative. Hitomi is a young woman who works at Nakano's Thrift Shop - not an antique centre with inherently valuable items, but the kind that sells the results from estate sales. Hitomi enters a complex relationship with Takeo, the other employee, not quite a love story, more a series of encounters, some romantic, some confusing, some, yes, mundane. But it is this mundaneness that is an art form in and of itself, looking at the lives Hitomi, Takeo, Nakano, and their friends and customer, the lives of "ordinary" people who wriggle along as best they can, forming connections, growing estranged, and re-connecting.
This is a gentle book. It never shouts, although, on occasion, there are sections that remind the reader that the main character is a young, contemporary woman, which forms a contrast to the general "ticking along" of the story. To me, the items in the shop are metaphors for the experiences and connections of the characters - attributing value to them is personal, and sometimes, this value isn't recognised until much later.
Bonus Books (read when Toby was younger):
The Big Wave (Pearl S. Buck), read when Toby was 6 years old (repost from www.writingtotheworld.com)
Toby says: The Big Wave was about scariness, happiness and sadness. There was a little boy called Kino and his friend Jiya. They lived on a volcano by the sea. One day, a big wave came and smashed people's houses, and people died. Jiya's Mum, Dad and brother died, so Jiya went to live in Kino's house. The boys were happy before the big wave came, but then came the big wave and they were sad. Sometimes, things are scary, but you still do them. Sometimes, even just living can be scary, but if you have friends, then you might not be so scared, but you might still be a bit scared.
Mummy says: This is a beautifully written story about friendship through hardship. It explores grief and sadness, and although it is short and covers quite a bit of ground, it reads very calm and "quiet". A lovely find, and I'm sure we'll return to it.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, by Eleanor Coerr (read when Toby was 6 years old, re-post from www.writingtotheworld.com)
Toby says: It was really sad. Sadako was a little girl, and she had to go to the doctors. She had leukaemia from the atom bomb. She was folding a thousand paper cranes so that she could get better again, but she actually died. I liked the book, it was a sad book, though. There is a statue of Sadako in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan.
Mummy says: This was another book that had stayed with me since childhood, and as a result of it, I have been folding paper cranes - out of receipts in restaurants, scraps of paper while we wait somewhere...Toby had been playing with these since he was tiny, and I always told him that I learnt how to fold them because of a book I'd read as a child. What I didn't realise was one important change the author made - when we researched the book, it turned out that Sadako actually managed to fold a thousand paper cranes, but died anyway. In the book, she falls short of her target, and her class mates finish the remaining cranes, so that she gets buried with a thousand paper cranes.
Hari is a young boy who just has a normal life in India, until he starts to dance, and realises that other people dance when he does. His friend, Mr Ram, used to own a dancing studio, teaching all Bollywood actors how to dance. Then his studio burnt down, and he stopped dancing, but Hari makes him remember the past. Together, Hari and Mr Ram set out to change the world through dance
The book shows that different things can help the world, even dancing. Hari's dancing makes people happy, and that makes the world a better place. I liked the book because I write letters to other countries to make the world a better place, and it's great to read about other children doing what they love and helping people. I really enjoyed the part where Hari first starts dancing, and two chickens and a dog start dancing with him.
This is the first of our joint posts, based on Toby's new challenge, to read a book from or about every country in the world. This time, he has not just picked the challenge himself, but also challenged me (Sabine/Mum) to do the same with grown-up books. We are not the first to read our way around the world, and we won't be the last. Just like with his letter-writing project, Toby came up with the rules:
"I want to read lots of books, and they should either be from an author from that country, or set in that country, or they can be non-fiction books, too. It's okay to read a book by an author from that country, even if the book is a fantasy or made-up story, because it helps you understand what kind of stories people come up with from different countries!"
So, Toby's definition is very flexible, and doubtlessly, we will on occasion choose a book which some people feel is not "representative" of a specific country. That will be true, no matter which book we choose, because no single book can ever hope to "represent" a country, just like the people Toby writes letters to can never "represent" all the people in that country.
For each country, each of us will choose at least one book to read, and we will share our reviews. Some of the books, Toby had already read and reviewed for his role as book reviewer for the amazing website "LoveReading4Kids", and so we are starting off with India, because we both read and reviewed books for LoveReading/LoveReading4Kids respectively, and launching with them in the month this wonderful website announced its closure seems a suitable way to thank them for the amazing joy they have brought us and many other people. We will miss them greatly.
Toby: "The Wildings" by Nilanjana Roy (read and reviewed when he was 8)
The Wildings is about cats which have amazing but scary lives in Delhi in India. All the characters are cats, and humans are called Bigfeet. Some cats live with the Bigfeet, but some are wild. A kitten's mother and a kitten were chased by Bigfeet, but the kitten just about got away, and ends up in the Nizamuddin clan. There is a war between two cat clans, one is the Nizamuddin clan, the main clan in the book. The author uses lots of adjectives to help you get the pictures in your head, which is really useful if you're not used to reading, and it helped build the story. The story was fast-paced, but not too much - it was exciting to find out what happens next.
I'd give this book 9 out of 10, it maybe just about squeezes in as my 4th-favourite book, because I like how it is set a real country and it helps your imagination to grow. It has inspired me to go to Delhi and see the country for myself one day. I can't wait to read the next book in the series.
Sabine: "The Bureau of Second Chances" by Sheena Kalayil
Recently widowed, Thomas returns to India after 30 years in London. Estranged from his grown-up daughter, he agrees to look after a friend's store, only to discover that the young assistant appears to be running an illicit side business from the premises. Her "Bureau of Second Chances" provides opportunities for divorcees to find love again, and Thomas finds himself becoming more and more connected to the people around him, while at the same time feeling disconnected from life in Kerala.
This book is about so many things - tenderly and artfully hinted at by Kalayil - so that every reader will find something for themselves. The book questions where we belong - whether our roots stay truly rooted, and what our own roots may mean to our children. The storyline has a beautiful balance of the familiar and the strange - not all words are translated, not all customs explained, making a reader unfamiliar with the circumstances remain ever a stranger, and the characters' choices sometimes difficult to understand. This is not an easy book - it doesn't take easy routes through familiar territory, and it doesn't shy away from exploring complex relationships. In the beginning, I found it hard to persevere at times, as I was getting used to the pace and the characters. There are several surprises in this book, but they don't come with a fanfare, they creep up on you, unsuspectingly, and pull you in.
You can read about Toby's letters and responses to/from India here.
Edited to add: Nilanjana Roy saw our Twitter post about the project and responded - how kind!!!! Thank you!!!!!!
My name is Toby, and I am 10 years old. I have written letters to every country in the world - you can read about that adventure at my other website, Writing to the World. Some letters are published in a book called "Dear World, How Are You?". In order to learn more about the countries I am writing to, I am reading books, and I am reviewing them here. I also review books for LoveReading4Kids, and those reviews are on here, too. I am trying to find one book set in each country, or by an author from that country. My Mum is doing the same for grown-up books, and I am reviewing mine, and she is reviewing hers. So whether you are a child or a grown-up, you can explore the world with us :)