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  • Murali Kamma

BOOK MATTERS for October 2019

Nina Soni, Former Best Friend (Peachtree Publishing) – by Kashmira Sheth, with illustrations by Jenn Kocsmiersky. Just in time for the holiday season, the Atlanta-based publisher has brought out a new book for the 7-10 age group. Although Nina, a math buff, is fond of making lists, she forgets that her science project is due soon. Alexander Fleming, known for discovering penicillin, comes to the rescue. Another inspiration for Nina comes in the form of her mom’s stuffed eggplant, now moldering in the fridge. The author’s degree in microbiology obviously helped her to cook up the plot, and this book is the first in a planned series focusing on Nina and her love of science and the arts. A birthday is coming up for her younger sister, Kavita, and Nina also has a dance lesson. Then there is Jay, her former best friend. Given these distractions, will there be enough time to discover Ninacillin? Nina is hopeful. As she notes, “Fleming wasn’t even looking for penicillin when he discovered it.”

 

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (Bloomsbury) – by William Dalrymple. Not only is Dalrymple a notable historian, especially of the Mughal period, but he co-directs the world’s largest literary festival in Jaipur. His White Mughals is being made into a movie. In his new book, Dalrymple charts the rise (and sudden collapse) of the world’s first multinational corporation, the East India Company (EIC). Also the first global corporate predator, EIC became so rich and powerful that by 1799 it had an army of 200,000 soldiers to control much of the subcontinent. Dalrymple draws on new scholarship in the West, and on translated Mughal documents, for this 576-page chronicle of the early British period. Following the Indian uprising of 1857, the British government took over from EIC and ruled the subcontinent for the next 90 years. “An energetic pageturner that marches from the counting house on to the battlefield, exploding patriotic myths along the way,” writes Maya Jasanoff in The Guardian.

 

Count Me In (Penguin) – by Varsha Bajaj. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, this is another timely book for middle graders. Karina Chopra and Chris, who are neighbors, narrate the story in alternating chapters. At first the two are not friends and they don’t even like each other. That changes when Karina’s grandfather, or Papa, begins tutoring Chris. Realizing that he’s actually a nice, affectionate boy, Karina becomes his friend and the three of them start spending more time together. But then there’s a traumatic incident when Papa and Karina are targeted because of their ethnicity. Papa is seriously injured, prompting this #CountMeIn post from Karina: “What does an American look like? #Immigrants #WeBelong #IamAmerican #HateHasNoHomeHere.” It goes viral, bringing much community support and showing how, if hate is one side of the coin, the other side is love. Happier times await the two friends and the recovering Papa. Bajaj has written another middle grade novel, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood, which was shortlisted for the Cybils Award.

 

The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh (Sterling Children’s Books) – by Supriya Kelkar. Judging by Alea Marley’s playful illustrations, the title of this book for the younger set (3-7 years) couldn’t be more appropriate. What also makes it apt are the various turbans worn by Harpreet Singh, a young Sikh American boy. Each turban’s color reflects an occasion or his mood, which ranges from happy (yellow) and celebratory (pink) to sad (grey). Given his outsider status, especially after he moves with his family to a smaller and colder town, he also experiences apprehension (blue). And he prefers white when he wants to be unobtrusive, though red suits him better when he’s feeling brave. “A lovely story about change and belonging that provides much-needed representation,” points out School Library Journal in a starred review. Kelkar, who learned Hindi by watching three movies every week when she was growing up in the Midwest, has worked on scripts for Bollywood films. Her middle grade novel, Ahimsa, won the New Visions Award in 2015.

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