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.
For Sudan, Toby has read a book that is not actually by a Sudanese author - however, he enjoyed it very much, and so, we wanted to include it. The book we have chosen for Egypt, by an Egyptian author, will feature Sudan again...a bit :)
oby: A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
A Long Walk to Water is a book about the Lost Boys of Sudan. These were 20,000 boys displaced by the Second Civil War in Sudan, which lasted from 1983-2005. Salva’s story starts in 1985. He is a young boy from the village of Loun-Ariic. One day, the rebels blow up his school and he gets separated from his parents. He then meets his uncle, and goes on a trip to a camp in Ethiopia. He meets lots of friends, but the rebels find them and make them swim the river going from Ethiopia to Kenya. Many get swallowed whole by alligators, and many get shot by the rebels. We follow Salva over several years as he tries to find his way to Kenya, and to safety.
The book changes narrators, as well as Salva, there is Nya. Her story takes place in 2008, after the civil war ended, and we first meet her when she fetches water, which takes her half a day. Salva’s story spans several years, Nya’s story lasts only a day.
I liked this book because it based on a true story. Salva is a real person, and the author’s descriptions are very good. The book wasn’t always easy to read, because you know that real people got hurt, but I think it is important to know happened in Sudan, and this is a good way for children to learn a bit about it.
Sabine: Telepathy, by Amir Tag Elsir
I enjoy books that mix reality with the surreal, and Elsir's short novel certainly delivers on this. An unnamed, celebrated Sudanese author begins to suspect that one of the characters in his latest novel - a poor man called Nishan Hamza Nishan, first a messenger in a school, before he takes it upon himself to gain an education with the aim of becoming a lawyer - is in fact based on a real person, of the same name. A friend of the writer suspects that Elsir may have been told Nishan's story telepathically, but Nishan is only part way through his own story, and in "Hunger's Hopes", the novel, an unpleasant fate awaits him. This leaves the author with a dilemma. Is he responsible for his characters, even in real life? Should he take it upon himself to try and change Nishan's fate - if it is his fate at all?
The book is set in Khartoum, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the Sudanese capital, as well as references to political occurrences, and seeing some of the views on Sudan and South Sudan through the eyes of somebody local. Elsir's descriptions are vivid, and the premise of the book was exciting. However, I found it difficult to warm to any of the characters - the women in Elsir's novel are difficult to engage with, since they seem very "polar" in character. The men are more interesting, but somehow always written at arm's length, as though there is a final piece missing. Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this book.
We have a very special reason to find out more about Zambia - in just under a month's time, we will be heading off to volunteer with the amazing charity Book Bus, to work in local primary schools for two weeks. Thanks to a briefing day in London and following the work the Book Bus does for the past two years, we have a pretty good idea what to expect...in theory. Theory is a wonderful thing, but it is not the same as practice, and it will certainly be the first experience of this kind for Toby. As always with our projects, the idea for volunteering originated with him, and he is, as you would say in England "well up for it". When we tried to find books to prepare, we found a few suitable candidates - fewer for children than for adults. Our copy of "Wandi's Little Voice", a battered second-hand copy, took no fewer than 7 weeks to arrive. Still, it did arrive, and in time for Toby to read it!
Toby: Wandi's Little Voice, by Ellen Banda-Aaku
Wandi has a horrible life, or has she? Wandi is playing on the streets, but her mother is about to strike. She grabs. Wandi screams. She pulls Wandi’s ear all the way home whilst saying “Aunt Betty is coming to visit, get yourself looking beautiful!” Wandi’s mother thinks looking beautiful is very important. Wandi is not allowed to play with children she wants to play with, because they are not “right”, her mother says. Her mother is always about fashion. She always has lipstick or lip gloss on, things Wandi doesn’t care about.
Now, you might be asking yourselves: Where is Wandi’s father? Wandi’s father and mother had a massive argument a few years ago, so Wandi’s father doesn’t come to visit any more, except for one day, when her father takes Wandi out for the day, and they have lots of fun, but something bad is about to happen in their family. Wandi’s father is very busy, because he is a doctor, but the family still don’t have a lot of money, they have a guitar with two broken strings fixed with sticky tape.
Throughout the whole book, Wandi feels never listened to – she only has a “little voice”, but she has to learn to be confident and courageous as she grows up.
This story is interesting and exciting. This book can catch probably anybody’s attention with its amazing front cover and brilliant blurb. The style of the writing that says “Wandi’s Little Voice” is an interesting font. My favourite part was at the end, so I don’t want to tell you and give it away – you’ll have to read it to find out!
Sabine: A Cowrie of Hope, by Binwell Sinyangwe
The lengths a mother will go through to provide for her child is the main premise of this moving short novel. Everything Nasula does revolves around her daughter - even her name, Nasula, means "Mother of Sula", and the reader does not discover her given name until the final pages of the book. Sula, the daughter, is the "Cowrie of Hope", hope for a way out of poverty in the Zambia of the '90s, where droughts and politics have made it difficult to eke a living in the countryside. The bag of beans Nasula is looking to sell is "the hope for the hope". If Nasula can sell the beans, she will be able to fund her daughter's continued education - consequences for Sula and alternative future pathways without an education are hinted at not so subtly, both in the city and in the village. Although the mother's own future is uncertain if she sells her beans, rather than eating them, she does not hesitate. But can she navigate Lusaka's market and its people to bring the desired outcome?
Sinyangwe takes on a female perspective in his second novel - a widow, shunned by her husband's family, sole provider for her daughter, who has to overcome incredible odds to enable her daughter to access education. Nasula is shown as a strong and resourceful woman, her many tears shed are never for herself, they are tears of desperation and helplessness. First forced to overcome her pride when she sets off to ask her husband's family for help, then setting off to sell what was meant to be her own food source, the story is in turns heart-wrenching and uplifting, when Nasula meets kind souls along her journey.
The book is quite short (150 pages), but the journey it describes is a long one - emotional, powerful, and well worth reading.
Sabine: Patchwork, by Ellen Banda-Aaku
Toby enjoyed his book by Ellen Banda-Aaku so much that we looked out additional books by her. "Patchwork" won the Penguin Prize for African Writing and was short-listed for the 2012 Commonwealth Book prize. The book follows "Pumpkin", a Zambian girl, first as a 9-year-old girl, then as a grown woman. Daughter of a mistress of a well-to-do man, Pumpkin is used to "Tata" arriving and leaving intermittently. When her mother's problems with alcohol become too obvious to conceal, Tata takes his daughter away, to live on his farm with his wife and their sons. "Mama T" is as cold as Tata is warm and generous, and Pumpkin struggles to find a way to fit in, especially as she realises that her mother was not Tata's first mistress, and won't be his last.
This book took several unexpected turns - Pumpkin herself is not your typical blameless, hard-done-by heroine, she lies and steals, then feels sorry, but unable to help herself. Her small acts of rebellion are ways to fell some sense of power in a world where everything is decided by grown-ups around her. At some point, Pumpkin remarks that, on television, grown-ups apologise to children. "I have never had an adult apologise to me", she muses. Pumpkin has a temper, and she doesn't lose it as an adult. She struggles to trust the people around her, including her husband in the second part of the book. Her flaws make her much more real, caught in a world between customary beliefs, religion, and science, drawn out in stark detail when her mother gets sick.
The "Patchwork" in the title refers to lies people tell, and hurt they cause each other - even if you mend the hurt, a scar remains, and the more often you cause pain, the harder it is to mend, until your life resembles a patchwork of hurt and apologies. I am very glad I found the author through Toby's book, and will be reading more of her work.
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 :)