These are two children’s books that really make you think. One is set in British Colonial India just before Independence. The other in rural Sudan, where it begins during the civil war in the mid 1980’s. The style and the way they are written are very different. They both presented me with a problem in reviewing them because the later parts of both these stories make them truly special. So if you notice there something is missing that’s because there is! To find out what you will need to read them!
Dindy and the Elephant is one of the best books I have read. It’s the first story I have read by Elizabeth Laird. I will be reading more! It has all the elements of a great story: adventure, pace, surprise and family drama, whilst seamlessly integrating this with it’s setting in British Colonial India. Beautifully written it makes you feel like you are right there both in the tea plantations and in the house. The illustrations by Peter Bailey perfectly capture the story and the glossary at the end is a great addition.
The story is written from the perspective of a 9 year old girl called Dindy. When she and her younger brother go outside their home and into the tea planation, they get more than they bargained for. Nikhil their Aya’s son and a few others come to their rescue. Some of my favorite parts of the story are the conversation between Nikhil and Dindy. In which Dindy begins to discover there is more to her beloved India than she realized. Then her brother starts shouting, and puts his foot in it, in the way small children do. Yet in the tensions in pre-Independence India there is more at stake. During the story Dindy manages to apologies for her brother and tries to let Nikhil know she respects him and doesn’t think like ‘other’ British.
Whilst reading this story I had a sense of déjà vu, as if I had been there before. Then I realized it reminded me of watching the film Gandhi as a teenager, and more significantly the BBC Drama Jewel in the Crown. Elizabeth Laird’s book vividly conjures up the world so well captured by this drama. It is a masterful piece of story telling which also gives valuable insights into British Colonial India. It has also occurred to me post the EU Referendum in Britain that there are some very interesting conversations this book could prompt about ‘Independence’ and attitudes to ‘others’.
‘” Let him fight his own battles’….’Look at him! He can’t wait to grow up and be like his daddy…He can’t wait to take all our money out of our country!’ “
A Long Walk to Sudan by Linda Sue Park is written in dual narrative from the perspective of 2 children. Part of the book tells the story of Nya, her daily trips to fetch water and her families struggle to get by. Her story opens in 2008. A larger part of the book is the story of Salva. It begins in 1985 during the civil war in Sudan. One day war comes to Salava’s village whilst he and the other boys are at school, they are forced to flee for their lives. The story then follows his long walk across Sudan to the Ethiopian border and safety. Along the way he makes friends and connections and together they keep each other alive. Along the journey he wonders whether he will ever see his parents or brothers and sisters again. It is at times both heart wrenching and brutal, but ultimately hopeful.
The style of this book took a bit of getting used to. For some children the dual narrative may make it more difficult to follow. It is not as descriptive as Elizabeth Laird’s story. You get a partial picture of the landscape and what it was like to live in the respective time periods. Having said that some of what it describes is etched in my memory. For example the night they spent on an island in the middle of the Nile. At dusk the fisherman that lived there disappeared into the protection of their nets:
“only a few moments later, mosquito’s rose up from the water….Huge dark clouds of them appeared, their high-pitched whining filling the air.”
This part of the story is made eve more poignant by what proceeds and follows it.
The power of this story is as much in what it leaves out as in what it says. As a child you do not see or understand everything and that is cleverly captured. For educators this book offers some interesting writing possibilities. For example: in telling the story the children do not tell or the story of other characters or by finding out about the landscape features of Sudan and describing them or even mapping them.