Finding diverse books that accurately represent global cultures can be difficult. I find too often that the texts rely heavily on stereotypes or the plots are much to common (ever read a young adult book about Native American cultures that didn’t discuss alcoholism?) We also face a politically charged climate where librarians and teachers may feel extra cautious when selecting diverse books. Fortunately, the push for diversity in library collections has lead to publishers selecting excellent quality books that speak to people from all walks of life.
Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins is less a novel than a novella. I read it cover to cover in about 40 minutes. The author was born in India and raised in the United States, but her family’s history is solidly rooted in Bangladesh, the setting of the story. Mitali and her husband returned to Bangladesh where she began to support efforts at empowering women and the poor to lift themselves out of poverty through innovation, entrepreneurial pursuits, and education.
The story open as Naima and her family struggle with poverty in their Bangladeshi village. Her father is in debt after purchasing a new rickshaw, a human-powered taxi that is propelled similarly to a bicycle. The rickshaw is brand new and in immaculate condition. The family anticipates serving many weathly customers who will want to ride in such a fine vehicle.
The family is Muslim and Naima is reaching the age when she will soon no longer be allowed to venture into public places without her father. She has no brothers or other male family members. Naima is the village’s best alpanas painter the village (an alpanas is a decorative painting style involving repeated patterns that provides balance to the ornately designed artwork). She wants to help support her family the same way her friend Saleem does for his father. Because she is a girl, she is not permitted to drive the rickshaw the way Saleem does.
One day Naima decides to prove she is capable of driving just as Saleem is. She begins to pedal the rickshaw down the dust-covered street. She quickly looses control of the vehicle, crashing it into a ditch thick with vegetation. When her father pulls it out, he sees his beautiful new vehicle is now dented and scratched. The pedaling mechanism still works, but he doubts customers will be willing to pay to ride in such a distressed looking vehicle. The family has no money to pay for repairs. The only item of value they have is Mother’s gold bangle, a treasure that has been passed from generation to generation. Though hesitant at first, when the vehicle begins to rust Father takes the bangle to sell and tries to find a repair shop.
Naima feels guilty for having caused such heartache for her family. She borrows clothes from Saleem to disguise herself as a boy and travels to the next village in hopes of finding work at a newly opened rickshaw painter’s shop. Naima offers her services in exchange for repairing her father’s rickshaw. To Naima’s surprise, the shop owner is a woman. She inherited the business from her father and she has no male relatives to work with her. The woman gives Naima the chance to help and is impressed with her work.
Father shows up at the shop in distress trying to find his daughter. When Naima and the shop owner explain what has occurred, Father is still concerned that his daughter should not be out unattended. The shop owner agrees to repair Father’s rickshaw if he will bring Naima to the shop three to four afternoons per week to be apprenticed. Father agrees and work begins on Father’s rickshaw. This is where the story concludes.
The text is quite short. The author includes illustrations by Jamie Hogan throughout the text to highlight visual details, making the narrative even shorter than the number of pages would indicate. The reader is left to wonder what happens to Naima and her family, whether father was able to pay off the debt or if Naima became a successful apprentice.
The story gives readers a beautiful window into the world of a Bangladeshi family. The narrative is not overtly political in nature, although the theme of women’s rights is clearly present. Readers will see familiarity in the young characters whose behaviors and desires are similar to children in American culture. In my opinion, diverse books work best when readers can make connections with the story’s characters. Blessed be the tie that binds, as the proverb says. The characters in this story are highly relatable. The plot moves quickly and the presence of culture-specific vocabulary is easily discerned both within the narrative and through a short glossary at the end of the book. Highly recommended!
Accelerated Reader Lvl. 4.3, 1.0 points
Reading Counts Lvl 5.2, 5.0 points
- Women’s Rights
- Social norms
- Family relationships
This book would make an excellent read aloud! It’s short and the story flows well from one scene to the next. In terms of content, I think you will find that some of the non-English vocabulary will be tough for early elementary grades. Grades 4-5 should not struggle with reading the selection independently.
On its surface the book will appear to be too easy for middle school. I would point out, however, that the book gives readers such a clear view of a world culture few if any of the kids may ever get to see. For a quick world cultures unit, this may be a great selection.
Activity Village has an encyclopedic entry for Bangladesh that is great for elementary kids.
For middle grades, consider using National Geographic which has a much more detailed entry.
Jamie Hogan, the illustrator of the book, has an excellent set of lessons across multiple disciplines on his blog. Check out the PDF here!