I have to admit this 240 page middle grade OWN voice book had me invested and glued to the pages. I was swept away to Sri Lanka and in disbelief at the boldness, cleverness, and spunkiness of the Robin Hood-esque 12-year-old protagonist. I could not put it down as my head worked over time to figure out how this trio of children, one being a Muslim girl, was going to get out of the heap of trouble they had caused. Yes, admittedly it wraps up a bit too quickly and simply, the main character Chaya doesn’t learn her lesson and is a terrible friend, and there isn’t a good moral of lying and stealing being bad. But all that aside, the book is a fun adventure that while written pretty straightforward and clearly, is rich in adventure, culture, and excitement for second to fourth grade readers (and 40 year old moms that love strong girls).
Chaya is the daughter of a tribal representative, whose mother has passed away. She goes to school, attends the temple once a week to learn Sanskrit, and at dawn is known to steal things to give to those in need. At night time, people are on guard, expecting trouble, but dawn seems to be the perfect time to take what she needs from people that won’t even notice. The book starts out with her stealing jewels from the Queen with the hopes of helping a friend who was bitten by a crocodile get medical help in the next town over. The people in Sarendib have an unjust king, and stealing from his wife to help take care of people that need assistant is a job Chaya takes seriously. Her heart is in the right place, but when a guard sees her she stops to visit a friend who works in a wood shop to hide the jewels until the heat dies down. The box they hide the stolen goods in is purchased by a young Muslim girl, and now Chaya has to steal them back from her to get them to people that are in need.
The chain of events is just getting started, and when the jewels are discovered the wood working Neel takes the blame and is imprisoned, and the new girl in town, Nour, is determined to help free Neel from prison and save the villagers from being tormented by the royal guards. Chaya devises a plan to free Neel from the palace dungeons, but nothing ever quite goes to plan and all the prisoners are freed. As she runs to escape her own doom, she steals an elephant to get away, the king’s elephant.
The entire story is a series of follies and at each turn the children have really good intentions, they just keep snowballing into situations beyond their control with the stakes constantly multiplying. I really don’t want to give it away, but they might just bring down a monarchy as they tromp through the jungle on an elephant, accidentally burn down villages, and find that even though Nour is a wealthy meat eater, they can in fact be friends.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the story is outrageous, yet grounded. I was sucked in from the first few short chapters and didn’t look back. Chaya is oh so plucky and her fallibility and flaws make her so endearing. She is a bit of a mean girl to Nour, but I think she shows growth. The slight raised eyebrow regarding her, is that she didn’t learn some grand lesson, and in fact is possibly emboldened by her thieving and getting away with it. There probably should have been some humbling at the end, but she is bold and outspoken, and not one for regrets. I absolutely love the letter she left her father owning up to her role in the whole hullaballoo, and as an afterthought acknowledging that she skipped two days of school. She is a cheeky one, but her heart is huge and she has her own sense of integrity that is unwavering.
I like that Nour is acknowledged as being Muslim, eating meat, and going to mosques before she moved. It doesn’t articulate that Chaya doesn’t like her for her faith, but it isn’t helping the two girls befriend each other either. I love the elephant, and the plants, and fruits, and animals that bring the story to life.
Lying and stealing. Some destruction of property.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I can’t see me doing this as a book club selection, it is just too young of a target audience, but it would be a blast to read aloud to a second or third grade class, or to assign in a classroom setting. The chapters are really short that early chapter readers will feel accomplished when they complete the book, and the subject matter will compel them to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.