It is a bit odd that this story is fiction, when it reads so much like a piece of nonfiction. It is a picture book, but has an AR level of 4th grade 4th month. So, while the story is great and highlights a country and culture, Bangladesh, not often seen, I don’t know that this book would appeal to many kids. The kids that it does appeal to though and that can find it in a library or bookstore (not sure where it would be shelved), I think will not just like it, but possibly find it both inspiring and worth reading again and again.
It is monsoon season in Bangladesh and the rains make Iqbal’s mom have to cook indoors. As a result, she and the baby, Rupa are constantly coughing from breathing all the smoke from the woodburning stove. Iqbal’s father mentions a propane stove he saw in the market, but the family cannot afford it, despite wishing that they could.
Iqbal’s school has just announced the School Science Fair and the winners get cash prizes, if Iqbal can win, maybe he can buy his family the new stove. His little sister Sadia offers her services to help him win and be his assistant.
After a lot of thinking, pondering, and dreaming, Iqbal decides on the perfect project: a stove that didn’t produce smoke.
With the help of his teacher at school to find ideas and articles and plans on the internet, Iqbal and his sister build a solar cooker with foil and an old umbrella.
The science fair is a success, Iqbal wins, the family buys the stove and propane with the winnings, and when it isn’t raining, the family is able to use the solar stove Iqbal and Sadia built.
The book draws on ideas of sustainability, pollution, economic viability, problem solving, and education. The culture provides the backdrop making all of these issues relevant and real, and mentioning Ramadan, Eid, and prayer provides some depth to the characters and adds to their culture.
A lot of reviews online criticize that the mom is cooking and that the kids test an egg on the solar cooker and call her to eat it if it is supposed to be Ramadan, but I personally promise you, during Ramadan, we are always cooking. And if she is nursing the baby, the mom wouldn’t be required to fast, there’s a lot of other reason she couldn’t/wouldn’t be fasting, but really, it is such a small portion mentioned in passing, no detail needs to be given, and it didn’t bother me at all.
Another complaint about the book is that if money is so tight the kids wouldn’t be at a school where they can just make copies, and buy eggs on their own. I think there is some truth to this, but maybe a wealthy doner funds the school. I think you could argue it either way. I don’t know that the family is poor, it is the overall society, so kids could have pocket money, a propane stove is probably imported at least from a larger city so the expense would be more, similarily the infustruction of electricity and gas lines could hint more at why they cook the way they do. Needless to say the family is smiling in the pictures, they have food, and they seem to be doing ok. So the fact that the school printed a few articles and the kids bought some eggs without asking permission, didn’t bother me greatly.
The illustrations are expressive and show the family connections and emotions. I like that they bring to life a country many wouldn’t know, even if I wish it weren’t a work of fiction, but based on some child actually there.
The end of the book has information about clean cookstoves, how to build one yourself, and a glossary. The large 9×12 hardbound book would hold up well to multiple readings, and the amount of text on the pages would work well as a read-a-loud to younger kids who would find the subject matter interesting.