Kali and the Rat Snake by Zai Whitaker; illustrated by Srividya Natarajan. Copy donated by publisher, Kane / Miller. Originally published in India.
The Plot: Kali is reluctant to go to school; he had been happy at the thought, but once the other children learned that his father was a snake catcher and he was an Irula, they stayed away. Things only got worse when the other kids saw that Kali's favorite snack is fried termites. All that changes when something happens at school and only Kali can save the day.
The Good: I don't know much discrimination within Irula; however, it's obvious from this book that Kali's tribe, the Irulas, is one that is looked down on, just as his father's occupation and his favorite food is scorned. I liked how Whitaker was able to convey it without ever flat out saying it.
Kids who don't know anything about the Irulas will still understand that Kali is being made fun of and bullied for reasons that aren't fair. What Kalie faces in the classroom, while set in India and is about snake catchers and fried termites, is universal; kids understand that. They may not know anyone who eats fried termites, but they know kids who are excluded for similar reasons.
Of course, Kali saves the day by using the skills taught to him by his father to catch the snake. So Whitaker shows not only that differences should be respected; but also that those things we look down on may be valuable. Shame on us for mocking instead. And it's a nice twist, with Kali being not only proud of who he is and where he comes from, but also having the whole school celebrate it.
Cheetah, my niece, liked this because it was about snakes. And didn't like it when the bullies were mean.
The illustrations are beautiful; I particularly liked the ones set in the forest. The colors are vibrant, and as you look closely at the trees and bushes you see birds, small animals -- hey is that a snake?
Jen Robinson's Book Page review.
Reviews gathered at Tulika Press (the original, Indian publisher)
Saffron Tree review.