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Review of the Day: Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy by Tara Dairman, ill. Archana Sreenivasan

Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy
By Tara Dairman
Illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-525-51806-8
Ages 4-7
On shelves May 12th

You know how in the Star Wars movies each planet has just a single solitary type of terrestrial biome? You know why that is? Because it’s simpler, that’s why. We, the movie watchers, are perfectly happy to point at one planet and say “ice planet” or “forest planet” or “weird red salt planet”. More than one type of terrain would confuse our little minds. And that’s fine for the movies, sure it is. The trouble is that we sort of have a tendency to do the same thing to large tracts of land. We’ll even do it to countries sometimes. Big ones. Big ones like India. And being your average stupid American, I know for an absolute fact that if you had walked up to me, prior to my reading Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy and said something akin to, “True or false: Monsoons hit all of India every year” . . . well, I don’t like to think how I would have answered. And if you’d asked me if there were deserts in India I probably could have remembered the middle grade novel The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani and said yes, but that’s not a guarantee. The truth is, it isn’t enough to teach kids about the wider world beyond their country’s borders. I honestly think there’s a value in teaching kids the fact that the more you learn, the more you will realize just how much you do not know. That there’s always room for more knowledge. Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy is a gorgeously wrought, simply written, smart story that does the work of engaging and informing kids alongside their ill-informed parents.

Short sentences tell the story of a boy and a girl living, what looks like, opposite lives. Where she faces down sandstorms and desert sun, he dodges raindrops and fast floods. Their lives parallel one another, no more so than when both must abandon their homes. The desert girl’s family must search for water, while the monsoon boy’s must escape it. At last, they meet one another in the hills, where their families laugh, and mix, and mingle.

I help run a children’s book committee at my library where we try to determine the 101 great children’s books of the year. One category where we always have to work a little harder to find the right material is “simple picture books”. It’s not hard to find picture books with long, complicated texts. Quite frankly, those are also the picture books that are easier to write. A book like Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy strikes me as a much rarer bird. Dairman keeps her text incredibly pared down. The first words are just “White sand. Green field.” Each sentence contains only two to three words, max. Now, I’m not saying this makes it a book for younger readers necessarily. On the contrary I read the book to my 8-year-old and 5-year-old today and I think both got something completely different out of it. Usually when we see a picture book with simple language we think of it as for babies and toddlers. This book uses its succinctness of language to direct the reader to what’s truly important about the story. There’s a lyricism to these brief terms and words above and beyond the information being conveyed. And did I mention how hard that is to do? So hard!

We cannot know precisely how Archana Sreenivasan came to this project. Certainly she’d already created Diwali by Hannah Eliot, but I like to think that the book’s editor somehow knew that this pairing was the perfect one. You see, in her Author’s Note, Tara Dairman explains that the characters in this story are the Rabari (or Raika or Rewari) people of northwest India. Archana Sreenivasan, as it happens, visited a Rabari settlement in Rajasthan years ago. For this reason, she knew that the Rabari people of Gujarat have their own “distinct practices with regard to living spaces, apparel, textiles, jewelry, and other details” from the people from Rajasthan. So when she was illustrated the girl’s family (Gujarat) and the boy’s (Rajasthan), she was able to do additional research on both groups to add to her already existing knowledge.

But, of course, you can do all the research in the world and still come up with a piss poor product if you don’t actually know how to, y’know, create beautiful art. Drawn in pencil and painted digitally, Sreenivasan’s illustrations are instantly enticing on the page. To a certain extent, I’d like to credit her background in animation film design. Naturally a hyper-realistic book would have been fine, but there’s something about the bright, beautiful, clear cut pictures here that really appeals. I wouldn’t call the art “cartoony” precisely, but it has that open child-friendly look. First off, take in these colors. How the desert palette is completely at odds with the monsoon palette. Now look at the design. Do you see how sometimes the two locations are split vertically, sometimes horizontally, sometimes at an angle, and how it isn’t until you get to that shot of the high ground, with the two families coming up opposite sides of a hill that it becomes single picture. These are elements you wouldn’t notice on a first read necessarily but they inform the entire experience of exploring this book. You just want to read it again and again. And thankfully, so do your kids.

I learn all my best stuff through children’s books, but only when I’m relatively certain that I’m getting a respectful telling done with an appropriate amount of research. This is a picture book, but when you see “the team at Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS), a nonprofit organization in Rajasthan, India that supports Raika camel pastoralists” thanked for their feedback on the work done in Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy it gives you a distinct sense that the people that worked on it actually cared about what they were doing. And, maybe even more to the point, cared about what they were representing. All I know is that I like introducing kids to this book. I like what it shows, what it has to say, how it looks, feels, and sounds. Good intentions do not a good book make. Talent and intelligence go a lot farther. Case in point, this.

On shelves May 12th

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.