For a book about magic, featuring a girl who admittedly knows very little about Islam, a surprising number of tidbits sneak through and work to introduce Islam and Pakistani culture to those unfamiliar, while similarly exciting Muslims readers who can see a major climax point a mile away and get to feel “in” on the unavoidable “aha” moment. Written on a 4.9 level this 297 page book, is clean and engaging, a rare combination, especially for advanced readers who are having a hard time finding books that are content appropriate. I’m fairly confident that anyone, of any age, who reads this will learn something, whether it be about lepidopterology, violins, occupation and partition of the subcontinent, Rudyard Kipling, caskets, friendship, Islam, and finding a place to belong.
There are three main storylines in the book, Leila’s, Kai’s and The Exquisite Corpses’. Leila is a Pakistani-American girl growing up in America who decides to visit her Pakistani dad’s family in Lahore for the summer. Unfamiliar with the language and customs, she has a good attitude of learning as much as she can, and absorbing new things. Her dad’s family speaks English, is not very religious, is wealthy, and pretty modern. They have servants, and drivers, and while she gets to go to museums and landmarks, the lifestyle is partially simplified for reader understanding, and partially to not take away from the real point of the story: Leila moving out of her sister’s shadow, and finding comfort in her own multi-cultural skin.
Kai is spending her summer with a great paternal Aunt in Texas that she has never met. Her father passed away and her mom has recently lost her job, so a change of scene is what she is presented with. Her Aunt is a character in and of herself, but by and large leaves Kai to her own devices and supports her adventures from a distance. The real story for Kai is a budding friendship with the neighbor girl, Doodle who is determined to find and save a rare moth no longer found in the area. Nervous to make friends Kai learns sometimes the value of things isn’t in the winning, or being the best, but in doing something because you enjoy it and it is the right thing to do.
The two girls story is tied together by them finding two parts of a magic book, The Exquisite Corpse. The old book tells the story of Ralph T. Flabbergast and Edwina Pickle, in bits prompted by the girls’ own writings. Like the game of writing a few sentences, folding over the page and having the next person add to the story, the book connects the girls and the readers in a tale that is as much about the two long ago sweethearts, as it is about families, overcoming obstacles, and believing in happy endings.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that it is told from various voices, and as much as the story is plot driven, I truly felt connected to the main characters. The only magic is the book, so the realism is very critical to gaining the readers interest and thankfully once you read about 70 pages or so I feel like the book does suck you in and take you for a fun ride. The first few chapters are a bit confusing and I wasn’t sure where the story was going, Finally, at my 11-year-old daughter’s prompting I had to just barrel through without asking and wondering too much. You don’t find out about Kai’s mom and dad or how Rudyard Kipling and “Kim” tie in to it all, almost until the end. I like that the author doesn’t talk down to the reader, and as a result I learned a bit about so many things. The twists and interweaving of stories and characters, and things as random as moths and music and saurkraut, remind me of well written adult novels that often aren’t found in books for fourth graders.
Their isn’t much religion in a doctrine or even practicing sense, but through culture some is learned and shared, and I like that it isn’t completely washed out or removed. The main character’s father says that he wasn’t religious in Pakistan so when he came to America he wasn’t about to start. Leila mentions that her mom wants him to take the girls to the mosque or to see Eid, but again, they don’t, but do celebrate Christmas. So, when she is in Pakistan and sees masjids, and fakirs, and people feeding birds as a sadaqa it is a nice inclusion. Especially because the vocabulary is used and explained. She mentions that her extended family goes for Jummah, yet doesn’t pray five times a day, she also touches on Ramadan as being a time of fasting but doesn’t know that there are two Eids. As she learns, the reader does too. It definitely isn’t how any practicing Muslim would want Islam portrayed, but it isn’t disrespectful and it is realistic. Again, because the author doesn’t seem to talk down through her characters, there doesn’t seem much judgement and thus, hopefully also shows most readers some diveresity to the Pakistani stereotypes in the media.
None, the book is clean, the love story between Ralph and Edwina, is just that they love each other. Nothing more than a sweet sentiment.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would definitely use this book as a Book Club selection because I think there is so much to connect to and discuss. It would be fun to do as an interfaith book club with kids for the same reason. While the main characters are girls, I think boys would enjoy it as well, there is some spying, sleuthing, action, and a whole goat debacle, that I think would be a blast to explore with students.
I don’t see any online reading guides, but there is so much to discuss it won’t be a problem. Enjoy!