Kali And the Rat Snake (story by Zai Whitaker, illustrations by Srividya Natarajan) is a classic tale of a misfit whose special talent eventually saves the day, set against a backdrop of modern rural India. Kali hates school, because he doesn't fit it. His father is a famous snake catcher, and Kali knows how to catch snakes, too (you see where this is going, don't you?). But after two months in school, Kali has no friends, and he fears that the other kids think that his tribe (of people who catch snakes for a living) is weird.
As we meet him, we learn that "Kali was getting used to things, but it was hard, and his walk to school grew slower and slower." He's ashamed to eat the foods that he loves, because he knows that the other kids find them unusual. (Fried termites!!). He eats alone.
But then Kali saves the day because of what he has learned from his father (saw it coming, didn't you?). And then everyone wants to be his friend. I found the ending a bit convenient (though I suppose a snake turning up at school in rural India is not unreasonable). But there are nice themes about people being unique, and about how one's own special talents can have a place in the world. The book includes a short glossary of Indian terms (food, money, etc), and offers a window into a culture that will be unfamiliar to most American readers.
The lush illustrations match the story well. The first page shows an overgrown jungle, with a beam of sunlight shining through the overgrowth. The colors blur into one another, with lots of greens and pinks. The language of the book is poetic in cadence, without actually rhyming. For example: "Arms and legs flew, bodies ran, tumbled over each other, fell, and ran some more." The quantity of text on each page, and the school setting, makes the book more appropriate for older picture book readers.
Book: Kali And the Rat Snake
Author: Zai Whitaker, illustrated by Srividya Natarajan
Publisher: Kane/Miller Book Publishers
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Age Range: 4-8
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher