The purpose of this post is two-fold. One, if you’re anything like me, you don’t have the time or the funds to travel the world. I’ve been a few places, but I’ll never get to go everywhere I’d like to visit. And there are so many different cultures in the world, so many people who aren’t like me, who live their lives in ways that I can’t fathom. And that brings me to fold number two. While I don’t read a lot of nonfiction (I try, I really do, but I just looooooove novels) I have a real passion for learning about other people and places. And that’s one of the many many reasons I love books.
Books make the freaking world go round. In my mind, quite literally. When I read a book that sets me down in an unknown land, with characters living lives unlike my own, I get to see into their cultures in a very intimate way. It’s a way of traveling and learning without having to leave home…or leaving the comfort of Fiction Land.
I read two young adult books this summer that really tore me from my reality and set me down in contemporary Southeast Asia. They left me with a broken heart and a new way of thinking about people I hadn’t given too much thought to before reading. These novels are BAMBOO PEOPLE by Mitali Perkins and SEA by Heidi R. Kling.
BAMBOO PEOPLE has a unique design. The first half of the book is about Chiko, a young Burmese teen, and son of a doctor with liberal views. When his father is taken away by the government for alleged treason, Chiko worries about his mother, his neighbor, and his best friend and love interest, Lei. When the government comes to force him into the military, Chiko’s life is turned inside-out. He is an educated boy — one of few in his community who can read and write and speak English — and he always thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Now forced into life as a child solider, in a regime run by cruel officers, Chiko’s only hope at survival is holding on to the memories of Lei and his father, photos of whom he carries in his uniform pocket. Developing a friendship with fellow soldier Tai, a boy from the streets, and using his literacy to get close to one compassionate officer, Chiko might have a chance to make it out of this unthinkable situation in one piece. But when something goes wrong and Chiko’s group of soldiers is sent into enemy territory, all hope is seemingly lost. At this point the book shifts perspectives to that of the young man Tu Reh, a Karenni boy who has seen the Burmese destroy his people’s homes and kill his friends and neighbors. When he goes with a small fleet of men on a mission into the forest, he finally feels like he can do something about it. But what he doesn’t expect to encounter is a Burmese soldier, his age, on the brink of death. Tu Reh’s peh gives him the choice: kill him now and save him the suffering, or bring him to see the medicine woman in the forest and see if he can be healed. This story of war — a story shockingly set in today’s Burma along the Thai border — becomes a story of human compassion and survival against all odds. This book broke my heart, and it made me want to tell everyone about the struggle in Burma. BAMBOO PEOPLE is not only an important book, but an elegantly written story, with characters that feel completely real. Mitali Perkins writes Chiko and Tu Reh in a way that makes them three-dimensional, and forces you to let them into your heart. This book is a serious Newbery contender. Read BAMBOO PEOPLE. Please. And keep a box of tissues by your side.
SEA is heartbreaking from the start. Sienna is a teenage girl who has never recovered from losing her mom, who was killed in a plane crash during relief efforts overseas. Her dad, a psychologist, can’t seem to help her with her debilitating nightmares and she’s drifted away from her best friend Bev. And then there’s Spider to whom Sienna used to be super close (and perhaps for whom she even harbors kissy feelings). When her sixteenth birthday rolls around, she is super psyched for a surprise her dad told her he has planned. But she is immediately crushed by her birthday gift: a ticket to Indonesia to join her dad, his partner and — ew! — her former therapist, Vera, on a relief mission — the first since her mom’s passing. Though Sienna’s dad has renamed the group Team Hope after her mom, she is furious that her mom has been replaced by Vera. Not only this, but since Sienna’s mom died, she hasn’t set foot in the ocean, or on a plane. But somehow she makes it to Indonesia, where Team Hope will be helping kids and teens at an Orphanage whose families died in the 2004 Tsunami. At first she is miserable, but when she meets Deni, a boy the orphanage owner claims is a rabble rouser, she is instantly attracted. His story touches her heart, and she feels alive in a way that she hasn’t since the accident. It’s not long before she’s breaking rules and defying orders to help Deni, and when they hear that his father might be alive, there’s nothing she won’t do to find out for sure, even if the future has something in store that will rock the foundation of Sienna and Deni’s relationship. SEA is beautifully written in elegant prose, with a voice so pure and real you can’t help but fall in love with Sienna’s story. Heidi R. Kling handles an event as tragic as a Tsunami with artful grace. I feel so connected to Indonesia, given this window, albeit via fiction, into a community still struggling to recover. I won’t be surprised when Kling‘s debut novel turns up as a contender for the Printz award this year. Go get a copy, fall head over heels, and cry your eyes out. You can thank me later.
I love these books times a jillion. They make the world a smaller place. Check out your local bookstore or library, and read the crap out of them. Seriously. NOW.