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Sita’s Ramayana

  • November 12, 2011 9:31 am


This graphic novel is an interesting retelling of the Hindu epic The Ramayana from the point of view of Sita, the queen of Ayodhya. The words are written by Samhita Arni, who as a child wrote an absorbing retelling of another Hindu epic: The Mahabharata: A Child’s View. The colorful, dramatic, appealing pictures are by Moyna Chitrakar, a folk artist who lives in West Bengal, India.

Sita is not known for being particularly active or assertive. In fact, her obedience and devotion to her husband Rama are legendary. Yet by focusing on Sita’s point of view, this retelling has something to say about a woman’s perspective on war and justice.

The story begins at the end, with the queen Sita entering the forest and begging the forest to shelter her. The forest wants to know why she was banished from Ayodhya, and she tells her story.

This retelling emphasizes Sita’s compassion for other women, including those who are considered enemies by the men. She believes that Lakshmana’s rash decision to cut off the demoness Surpanaka’s nose is the cause of her (Sita’s) abduction and the war in Lanka. “Violence breeds violence, and an unjust act only begets greater injustice,” Sita says.

When she is Ravana’s prisoner in Lanka, Sita becomes close to one of her demoness guards: Trijatha, who, unlike the other guards, feels compassion for Sita. It is Trijatha who tells Sita the story of the war between Rama and Ravana.

As much as Sita is overjoyed that Rama won the war, she still feels compassion for Mandodari, Ravana’s widow, as well as for all the other “enemy” women. “They would be queens no more, and their people had met death on the battlefield–for what? For one man’s unlawful desire. . . . It was such a high price to pay.”

The story also features a few other powerful females, including an apsara (divine female) who warns Hanuman about a sorcerer, and the goddess Chandi Devi.

In the end, of course, even Sita’s devotion to Rama cannot help her against the rumors that surround her because of her sojourn with Ravana. Sita finally makes a decision to leave Rama and return to her mother, the Earth.

I have included this book on my girls’ list.

Riparia’s River, by Michael Caduto

  • August 12, 2011 8:51 am

Four children (two girls and two boys) discover that their favorite swimming hole is smelly and overgrown with slimy green stuff. They walk upriver to find the source of the problem, and they encounter a mysterious woman who calls herself “Riparia.”

Riparia shows them that the water has become polluted due to herbicides applied on a farm nearby. In addition, cow manure and fertilizer are causing too much algae to grow in the water. The children want to help solve the problem. They know the farmer’s daughter, Amy, and decide to talk to her.

Riparia cautions them that it might not work to tell other people what to do. The children decide to invite Amy to go swimming with them, so she can see the problem for herself. At that moment, Riparia disappears.

The children, with Amy’s help, talk to Amy’s father. However, her father says he does not have the time or the money to deal with the problem. He invites them to figure out a solution themselves. Riparia’s words give them an idea. The children, with Amy’s father’s help, move the farm fence farther away from the river, to create a buffer zone. They also enlisted the help of others to plant wildflowers, trees, and shrubs in the buffer zone.

Two years later, their buffer zone has  turned into a beautiful habitat for animals, and the swimming hole is clean again.

This picture book for elementary-age kids combines an environmental message with an example of youth leadership and initiative. The illustrations by Olga Pastuchiv are beautiful, and at the end is a list of animals that can be found in the pictures throughout the book. The author, Michael Caduto, is an ecologist and storyteller.

I highly recommend this charming and educational book. I have included it on both my girls list and my boys list, as well as on the blog post Earth Day Books.

The Wikkeling, by Steven Arntson

  • July 10, 2011 5:59 am

 This engaging, slightly spooky fantasy novel can be read on a couple of levels. Upper elementary kids (the target age is 9-12 years old) will likely read it as an adventure story. Henrietta and her friends, Gary and Rose, manage to vanquish the mysterious, menacing “Wikkeling” with the help of a gender-obscure cat named Mister Lady.

Kids will also enjoy the well-developed setting. Henrietta and her friends live in a dystopia in which technology, pavement, new construction, and advertising are taking over their world. Schools are driven by computerized, standardized tests, and everyone has instant access to the latest news about each other through their cell phones and other gadgets. (Sound familiar?) Henrietta and her friends also get a glimpse into what their neighborhood looked like a few generations ago. I was immediately drawn into the characters and setting, and I think kids will be, too.

Adults and older readers might get into the allegorical aspect of the story. The Wikkeling, we learn, was created by a couple of scientists for humanitarian purposes, to “harness the power of nature toward human industry.” The Wikkeling was brought to life by one word: “grow”. Unfortunately, this growth had no limits. The Wikkeling and its power destroyed its creators, and began taking over the world.

While the story ends with a satisfying resolution, there are enough loose ends that I assume this book is the beginning of a series.

Women Scientists in Novels

  • April 29, 2011 5:15 pm

This post is a bit of a departure from the premise of my web site. The novels featured below are not published by small publishers, nor are they specifically for young people. Nevertheless, I thought they would be of interest to teachers, parents, and teens looking to read and recommend novels featuring women scientists.

The following novels are ones that I’ve enjoyed and consider to be “good literature.” The novels below are realistic works of fiction—not science fiction. The science in these books is prominent and a main part of the story.

Interestingly, most of these books feature two women scientists who are friends and/or colleagues.

If you have other books to add to this list, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier — A historical novel based on the lives of two real women fossil hunters in the early 1800s: Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Anning, from a working-class family, started hunting fossils to sell as a way to increase her family’s income, and ended up finding several large skeletons of extinct marine reptiles. Philpot, a middle-class lady, hunted fossils to pass the time, and amassed a respected collection of fossil fish. The novel chronicles their friendship, as well as their efforts to be noticed and included in the male-only scientific community of the time. This book would be a good companion read with Persuasion by Jane Austen. Remarkable Creatures takes place in the English seaside town of Lyme Regis at the same time that Jane Austen lived and wrote. A portion of Persuasion also takes place in Lyme Regis.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh — A beautiful, absorbing, unusual book about an Indian-American cetologist (dolphin researcher) working in the Sunderbans, a group of tropical, tiger-infested islands off the coast of India. Piya, the cetologist, befriends an illiterate fisherman, Fokir, who has an amazing self-taught knowledge of river dolphins. Although they don’t share a language, they manage to communicate enough to collaborate on tracking the movements of these dolphins. The final storm scene is gripping and poignant.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman — Two of the main characters are women scientists: Robin, a single 38-year-old post doctoral student researching cures for cancer, and Marion, a married mother who is co-director of the lab where Robin works. The story revolves around Robin’s attempt to prove that the remarkable results produced by her former boyfriend are the result of false data. Is Robin motivated by jealousy, or by a dedication to scientific rigor? Why does Marion fail to support Robin in her quest for accuracy and truth? The characters in this novel are complex and the lab scenes are full of detail. This would be a great book to spark discussions of issues like jealousy, competition, ambition, and collaboration.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – There are two women scientists in this book: Deanna, a 47-year-old wildlife biologist who studies coyotes, and Lusa, a twenty-something entomologist interested in moths. During the summer of this story, these two women, who happen to live in an isolated Appalachian town, attempt to engage with and educate the farmers and hunters in their area about the importance of wildlife and nature. The story also deals with the fertility, mating, and reproduction that goes on among humans and animals during this one “prodigal summer.”

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett — again, two women scientists are featured in this novel. Forty-two-year-old Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher who is sent to the Amazon rainforest to track down 73-year-old Annick Swenson, an aloof researcher who has been living with an Amazon tribe for years, researching a fertility drug. Annick is a former medical school professor of Marina’s, but while Marina revered her teacher, Annick doesn’t remember her student.  While in the rainforest, Marina also wants to investigate the mysterious death of her colleague Anders Eckman. This novel has a strong plot and a fascinating setting.

Bullying and Me, by Shapiro and Vote

  • March 26, 2011 8:58 am

Click image to buy book

The subtitle of this 30-page book is “Schoolyard Stories,” and indeed this book features the voices of kids relating stories about bullying at school. 

The kids are from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and of varying ages, from elementary school through high school. Also included are two adults who talk about the bullying they experienced when they were children. Each two-page spread includes color photos of one child or adult, along with their story of bullying.

Most of the people featured in this book were targets of bullies, but a few talk about their experiences of being mean to someone else, or not helping someone else who is being bullied. The children who were bullied relate how they overcame the problem with the help of family and teachers. The children who believed they were bullies discuss why they acted the way they did, and what they wish they had done instead.

The book also includes tips and reflections from Dr.  Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology. As Dr. Dorothy points out, “bullies often pick on kids who are different in some way.” A boy who is not good at sports but likes art or music; a boy who refuses to fight; or  a girl who does not dress in the right clothes, or who talks to the wrong people, may be targets of bullying. Kids who try to break out of gender stereotypes may face bullying as other kids try to force them to conform.

A few of the young people in this book point out that sometimes parents and teachers are not helpful. As one boy said, “Kids are sneaky about bullying.” Teachers and parents may not see it happening, and even if they do, they may not know how to stop it. Therefore, it can be effective for kids to take matters into their own hands, with adult guidance. Two of the young people featured in this book were part of a team that started an anti-bullying committee at school to educate other kids about how to stop bullying. Another boy overcame his fear to confront a bully and tell him, “Y0u’ll have more friends if you’re friendlier to people.” This worked, and the bully became a good friend.

This book can be a great discussion starter about bullying. I like the fact that this book uses kids’ own words to talk about bullying. I have included it on my boys and girls lists.