There is a perception that many children acquire over the course of their education that learning and fun are mutually exclusive ideas. If a book has so much as a smidgen of a fact in it then it’s no good to you, right? Fortunately, there are thousands of different kinds of child readers. Some like fantasy. Some like science fiction. Some go in for historical novels. And some like to be taken out of their humdrum lives and given a chance to see how the world works from a different perspective. They may even (gasp, shudder, shudder, gasp) enjoy reading realistic contemporary fiction. Enter Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. I know we’ve enough books out there to say that this probably isn’t the first book on Burmese child soldiers we’ve seen. It may well be the best, though. Splitting her book between two boys on opposite sides of a war they do not want, Perkins deftly drops us head first into a world we do not know and makes it accessible, understandable, and interesting. In a time when every other novel for kids is just a reiteration of an idea we’ve seen done a hundred ways before, here we have at least one book that knows that being important and being enjoyable are simply opposite sides of the same coin.
Chiko’s life is spent mostly indoors, and it’s driving him insane. Ever since his father was arrested and taken by the Burmese armies the boy has been forced to hide in his home. His mother’s fear? That he’ll be snatched away and forced to serve in the army like other boys his age. But when a risk taken to apply for a teaching position leads instead to his capture, Chiko is forced into the impossible position of aiding his government as a soldier. And though he makes a clever alliance with the smart street urchin Tai, it may only be a matter of time before Chiko is destroyed utterly by his service. Meanwhile, an opposite story is playing out in a Karenni community. Tu Reh is ready to fight for his people against the Burmese oppressors, but his very commitment to his cause is put to the test when he saves a wounded Burmese soldier. That’s soldier’s name? Chiko. And suddenly two worlds come together, causing both boys to question their lives and assumptions. An author’s note and afterword give more information about Burma and what readers can do to improve the situation there.
The problem with a book of this sort is that as an author Ms. Perkins has to deliberately place her heroes in constant danger while at the same time keep the plot just upbeat enough that you’re not crushed by despair. So it is that during their time training as soldiers, Chiko and Tai must constantly find ways to outwit their oppressors without going so far as to draw the worst of their ire. You are consistently made aware that at any moment something truly terrible could happen to the boys. At the same time, there’s that strange flicker of hope that maybe they’ll find a way out of their predicament. It keeps them going. It keeps you going too.
It’s interesting then that Ms. Perkins switches the narrative focus halfway through the book. Up until this point you’ve been wholly enmeshed in Chiko’s story. He is your friend on this journey, and to suddenly switch at this point feels harsh. You understand Tu Reh, of course. And as the story continues you may even grow to like him. But I believe that you never feel quite as close to Tu Reh as you feel to Chiko or even Tai. To be fair, Tu Reh is in a much tougher position. Unlike the two Burmese boys he’s surrounded by people who care about him (for the most part) and his enemy is clear cut. They, in contrast, are surrounded by people seemingly on their own side who wish them harm. It’s no surprise that the Epilogue belongs to Chiko then. He’s the one you want to get the last word. Tu Reh’s narrative is necessary, but Chiko’s is the one you hang your heart on.
As a child I was a fantasy reader. I deliberately avoided any books with realistic tendencies, particularly if I suspected they might be what I dubbed “depressing”. So there would be no reading of Bridge to Terabithia or Julie of the Wolves or any of that for me. It’s funny to be a children’s librarian now and to realize that while there are plenty of kids out there who share my tendencies, there are plenty more that are looking for something exactly like Bamboo People. Exciting, tense, often beautiful, and containing a moral without whapping you upside the head with it, Mitali Perkins yet again hits it out of the park. Even the fantasy fans like I was are going to find this an exciting ride. A book that continually keeps you guessing.
Ages 10 and up.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy given by author for review.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Book Moot
- The Old Coot
- A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy
- Reading in Color
- Becky’s Book Reviews
- Kids Lit
- Media Macaroni
- The Goddess of YA Literature
- She Is Too Fond of Books…
- Bruce Wishart
- YA Bookshelf
- A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust
- Librarian By Day
- Good Books and Good Wine
- Amy Reads
- Cafe Saturday
- Unintentionally Funny Books
- Bermuda Onion
- Helen’s Book Blog
- Marjolein Book Blog
- Explore Dance
- Mitali has already created a discussion guide for the book for your convenience. Her Bamboo People website also contains all the information you could possibly desire on the subject.
- For a great deal of insight into this book and some personal connections to Burma itself, read Karen’s post at Kidsmomo.
- A recommendation from the Scituate Public Library.
- There’s a piece on the book from Rasco from RIF.