A book meant for middle grades, 8-12 year olds, that has depth and layers and culture and strength is not something you find very often. Over 275 pages, the book is at times dark and haunting, but what is truly remarkable is that it doesn’t talk down to young readers and with its pop cultural references and relate-ability, the book is not dreary. In fact, the true “haunting” occurs after the book is finished and the concepts of friendship, being alive, and forgiveness stick around and require thought and consideration. The book is based on a Malyasian folktale, how much is a fleshing out, or simply a starting point, I do not know, but I do know that the characters are memorable, the concept thought provoking, the writing flawless, and the intertwining of Malay culture, Muslim characters and the supernatural, a combination that makes for an enjoyable read.
When an old witch dies, her pelesit, her ghostly demon, is passed on to her granddaughter Suraya. Suraya lives with her mother, a teacher, and is lonely and emotionally neglected. An adventurous girl, the pelesit, keeps the small girl safe, but waits to reveal himself to her in the form of a grasshopper when she is older. When he does reveal himself to her, she asks him his name, and he doesn’t know it, so she names him Pink.
Suraya and Pink become best friends, and he provides company for her as she receives very little from her mother and has no friends. Suraya had no knowledge of her grandmother and Pink modifies the stories to leave out how evil, cruel and vindictive she was through him. As an evil being with no heart these acts never bothered him, although he stopped enjoying them long before she died. With Suraya however, he feels things. He is sad that she is unloved by her mother, teased by the other children, and that she doesn’t have the things other kids have. Suraya is kind, and forgiving, and tries so hard not to let things bother her. Pink however, with a twitch of his antenna can make things happen. Bad things. Things that might at first seem like a part of life, but when Suraya catches on, she scolds Pink. She makes him promise never to use his magic to hurt people, ever. He reluctantly agrees, she is his master after all. Unfortunately he doesn’t keep his promise.
On Pink’s prodding, Suraya makes friends with a new girl at school, Jing, and their friendship makes Pink jealous. He harms Jing and Suraya decides she no longer wants to be his master. As a result Pink is determined to make Suraya’s life miserable. As desperation mounts, Suraya tells her mom about Pink and a pawang is called in to separate the spirit from Suraya. Something seems off about the pawang, and when Suraya investigates, she realizes that she must save Pink from him. Together with Jing, Pink and Suraya are off on an adventure against the pawang and might just learn more than Pink’s backstory in their efforts along the way.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that Suraya and her family are Muslim and that Jing is not and they are best friends. Suraya and her family pray, celebrate Eid, give salams when at the graveyard, but obviously also believe in magic and ghosts, and somehow in the story it doesn’t seem to be contradictory or odd. I love Suraya’s strength. None of the relationships in her life are good. Yet, she is good, and she forgives and fights to make those close to her better. Pink is manipulative and controlling and abusive, but she still fights for him to be treated better and that says more about her, than whatever he is. Suraya’s mom is distant and neglectful, but yet, there is still realistic hope that their future can be and will be better. I love that all these layers are there and yet are subtle too. Kids are smart and they will bring their own experiences, understanding, and expectations to decipher these relationships, and that is amazing. I love that the characters in the story may be so different than the typical western reader, but they will still see themselves in this poor Malay girl from a small village, in her best friend Jing who lives and breathes Star Wars, or even in the religions pawang who is a power hungry charlatan; toxic friendships and family secrets make the book universal.
Pink makes it look like blood is on a girls back side, implying a girls fear of leaking, but it isn’t explicit or named. There is death and dying and supernatural and lying.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I am thinking strongly about using this as a book club book, as the discussion would be delicious and varied among the participants.
Interview with the author: https://thequietpond.com/2020/08/20/our-friend-is-here-an-interview-with-hanna-alkaf-author-of-the-girl-and-the-ghost-on-writing-friendship-malaysian-childhoods-being-true-to-your-stories/