Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan. Charlesbridge. Copy supplied by author. Publication date: January 2007.
The Plot: Naima lives in Bangladesh with her parents and her younger sister. Her father owns a rickshaw; Naima's time at school is over because now it's her younger sister's turn. Naima is a talented alpana painter; but she longs to be able to help her father. Naima's friend, Saleem, can help his father by driving their family rickshaw to both earn extra money and give his father a rest. But Naima's family has only daughters, so her father struggles alone. What can Naima do?
The Good: I know what we are all thinking: forget traditional gender roles, Naima will drive the rickshaw!
Naima thinks that, too. But she's never driven one, has no experience, so promptly wrecks it; instead of helping her family, she has increased the financial burdens. While her parents are angry, it's an anger of puzzlement, of concern, of financial worry; but they are also loving parents, and they move on. When aunts start making an issue of it, Mother stands up for her daughter: "Everybody makes mistakes. She was only trying to help."
Naima needs to contribute; and she decides that since she is a talented alpana painter, why not work for the rickshaw repair shop in exchange for them fixing her father's rickshaw? Once again, Naima is going against tradition; but this isn't as drastic as being out in public driving a rickshaw; plus, it's something that is founded on Naima's existing talent. This is the solution that ends up working (with a few twists I won't spoil). I liked this solution because Naima pushes against the gender boundaries of the culture but doesn't break them or trash them; it remains realistic to her society and her place in her world. Also, since Naima works within her culture, the book respects that culture; Naima's world is never shown as "other" or "less" because of these defined gender roles.
Rickshaw Girl is about tradition but it takes place in the present. Naima draws water from a well, her mother wears traditional dress, but there are also radios and a television. The solution also involves microfinance; or, banks loaning small sums of money to invest in ways to make more money, and how this helps women start small businesses and this assists the war against poverty. They are such small sums, and for people with no money, that traditional banks don't make these loans. Yet, they make a world of difference for the people who do benefit from them. (And may I say that I love a book that shows this in a way anyone can understand.)
Another thing I liked about this -- in addition to that Naima stretches the rules but doesn't trample on them -- is that this book is realistic about eduction versus art and trade as a means to make a living and be happy. The family can only afford school fees for one daughter; Naima's schooling is over. The idea of further schooling is not realistic; and the book doesn't hold that unrealistic answer out as the only answer. The answer for Naima creating a better life for herself and her family lies in her existing talents and in discovering a way to successfully market that talent.
Other good things: Hogan's black and white illustrations are old-fashioned, illustrating the story but also using designs at chapter headings to pull the reader into the story more fully. I was reminded of books I had read when I was a kid. While this is a great "window" to another culture, it is never didactic or textbooky and always remains a great story; there is a glossary to help out with unfamiliar words; and notes and acknowledgments to give further infomation about the story and the research by the author.
Links: The Paper Tiger interview; The Edge of the Forest interview; the Readers' Rants review; the MotherReader review.