Gravity Buster: Frank Asch
Sunday Afternoon Visits: Cybils Widget, Fibs, and Lookybook

Rickshaw Girl: Mitali Perkins

Book: Rickshaw Girl
Author: Mitali Perkins (blog)
Illustrator: Jamie Hogan
Pages: 96
Age Range: 7-10

Rickshaw GirlRickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins is about a young girl growing up in a small village in Bangladesh, wanting to help support her struggling family in a culture where only boys are expected to earn money. Although Rickshaw Girl is fiction, the background about Bangladeshi culture, gender roles, and economic opportunities is real, and draws on the author's own experience living in Bangladesh.

Ten-year-old Naima is an artistic child with a sparkling imagination. She loves to paint alpanas, traditional patterned drawings made with rice paint, and used to decorate homes for special occasions. She loves her parents, and wants to perform her many household chores well to please them. She's a fierce protector of her younger sister.

But Naima struggles with the expectations that her society and her family's poverty place upon her. She wishes passionately that she could have continued in school, which she stopped so that her younger sister could have a turn instead. She wants to spend time with her best friend, a boy named Saleem, but this is not considered "proper" now that she's growing up. She'll soon have to stop wearing the relatively comfortable salwar kameez, with its loose, pajama-like trousers, and start wearing the more confining saree that adult women wear ("They look pretty, but I feel as if I'm wearing a big bandage"). But the thing that really bothers her is that because she is a girl, she can't contribute financially. Instead, she has to watch her overworked rickshaw-driver father and listen to her mother's quiet lamentations on the family not having any boys.

When an attempt to drive the rickshaw herself leads to disaster, Naima's guilt knows no bounds. It's only when she finds a way to use her own strengths to contribute to her family's success that her situation improves. And being herself, a girl, even turns out to be an asset. In less than 100 slim pages, Mitali Perkins take Naima from this:

"If only I HAD been born a boy, she thought. Then I could earn some money. Even a little would help!" (Page 21)

to this:

"It's a good thing I turned out out to be a girl. The words chimed like sitar music in Naima's mind." (Page 77)

In summary, this book:

  • Shows kids what the Bangladeshi culture is like, complete with a handy glossary at the end.
  • Teaches children and adults about the beauty of alpanas, complete with authentic illustrations by Jamie Hogan. At the book signing that I attended, Mitali's mother gave a real-world demonstration of alpana painting. I think that the alpanas are a symbol, too. Alpana painters are restricted to certain patterned responses. However, by staying within and leveraging these patterns, artists can find scope for creativity and beauty. Just as Naima found a way to make a difference, while still being valued as a girl.
  • Shows American girls an appreciation for their relative freedom, compared to girls from developing countries.
  • Teaches kids, with a very light touch (most details are in an Author's Note at the end), about new microlending programs that give women in developing countries previously unheard of economic opportunities.
  • Celebrates a father's love for and appreciation of his daughters, even in a culture where sons are considered more valuable. Mitali said in her book signing that this aspect of the book is based on her own father, who values his three daughters.

Despite these many lessons, Rickshaw Girl doesn't feel message-y. The feel good ending is a tiny bit tidy, but pleasing nevertheless, and containing an unexpected twist. But what makes the book one to return to is that Naima is a three-dimensional character, with strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities. Jamie Hogan's richly textured black and white illustrations make Naima, and her art, even more real (I especially like the illustration in which she sticks out her tongue at Saleem behind his back). The pictures also keep the book accessible for younger readers. Recommended for boys and girls, but especially girls, age seven to ten.

Publisher: Charlesbridge
Publication Date: January 2007
Source of Book: Bought it at an author signing
Other Blog Reviews: A Patchwork of Books, Kate Messner, My Breakfast Platter, Semicolon, Fuse #8, MotherReader, Tea Cozy, Literary Safari, The Edge of the Forest
Author Interviews: HipWriterMama, Big A little a
See also: My review of Monsoon Summer, my review of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, my interview with Sparrow, and Kirby Larson's anointment of Mitali as a Hot Woman of Children's Literature

Also, please see Mitali's post about the recent cyclone in Bangladesh, with a link to a way you can help if you're interested.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.