Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan

Asha lives in a Himalayan village and her family depends on her father sending wages back from his job in the city. He hasn’t been in contact for four months, however, and money lenders are closing in, threatening their home. Asha decides to leave with her best friend Jeevan to find her father, travelling hundreds of miles on an adventure. Throughout their journey, they are accompanied by a lamagaia (bearded vulture), which Asha believes may be her nanijee (grandmother) returned to help her as a spirit bird...

This is a truly lovely book. For one thing, it is so deeply uplifting – her unshakable belief in the spiritual side of life and death is what defines Asha and the ever-pervading sense that miraculous things are always possible grows stronger as magic surrounds Asha on her journey. The journey itself comprises many diverse experiences and encounters, from tiger-laden jungles to mountainous pilgrim destinations to the shady streets of the city. So many different settings make the plot fast-paced and adventurous, resulting in an exciting read. Finally, one last thing that I want to say about Asha and the Spirit Bird is that it introduces Indian culture to its young readers with both clarity and beauty; a glossary at the front explains some Hindi and Punjabi words and customs, especially foods, clothes and the festival of Divali, for example. I can imagine how children will want to explore Indian culture further after reading it, perhaps trying out the food it describes. I know I want to!

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay

Moving on to a slightly older target audience, Bone Talkis a novel that I had already read, but which is well worth the re-read. It follows Samkad, a Bontok boy from the Philippines as he is frustrated in his pursuit of becoming a man in his village by bad omens, his blood enemy the Mangili, and the invasion of Americans. But he does have friends to help him overcome these obstacles; the indomitable Luki, desperate to become a warrior but forbidden as a girl, and the ever-lovable Chuka, a dog.

It’s actually more harrowing than I remembered and there are some absolutely chilling moments. The Americans are particularly sinister, a combination of pretend philanthropism and abuse for self-gain. The one thing that leapt out at me as the same was its strong focus on culture; Bone Talk is situated in the 1899 American invasion of the Philippines and the utter forcible degradation and colonial eradication of their culture is at the forefront throughout. It’s not all despair of course, since there are plenty of light-hearted moments and a large part of the novel is dedicated to representing the beauty of the Bontok culture, especially in the absence of Westernism. But this positive side does serve to reinforce the message about the preservation of culture as it is in such stark contrast to the darker areas of the book.

Rocketmole by Matt Carr

Let’s return to a lighter subject and a (much) younger target audience. Rocketmole is a picture book for young children about a little mole who finds Earth quite boring… and so decides to go to the moon!

The thing that surprised me the most about this book was all the puns. I did not expect quite so many mole-related puns. Now, I’m not a huge fan of them as a style of joke, but even I chuckled out loud at some really good ones, especially as they kept popping up unexpectedly in little dialogue bubbles as a fun surprise. There were lots of facts too, to keep things educational. But not only were these mole and moon facts displayed at the end, I could see a few prompts to get children thinking tucked away throughout, such as a diagram of the Solar System discreetly pinned up on a workshop wall a few pages in. Bold colour scheme, lovely illustrations and clear composition of image made the book very appealing visually and the evident parallels to Neil Armstrong (the mole’s name even IS Armstrong!) show how it is an accessible demonstration to young children of how the Apollo 11 mission acts as a beacon of hope, ambition, and courage… on the more relatable level of a mole!

These three authors, Jasbinder Bilan, Candy Gourlay and Matt Carr, will be joined by five others to deliver a programme of workshops at schools in and around Chipping Norton on 25 March as part of ChipLitFest's programme of outreach work.

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