Review of the Day: Younguncle Comes To Town
At 9:00 a.m. I speak to a group of Spanish speaking parents about the benefits of the library. With that in mind, I'm not entirely certain when I'll be able to post. But I see that it is 12:19 a.m. so I'll just do the review of the day now. You lucky bastards who are awake as late as I am (which, of course, makes the assumption that you're all on the same time zone... ho ho) will get a peek at this one early. Enjoy!
Young reader books. Bane of my existence. Light of my life. Sometimes I swear that half my life is spent relentlessly tracking down worthy early chapter books for those kids who still need large fonts and plenty of pictures with their stories. In the year 2006 I've managed to locate two worthy early chapter books for the kiddies. One is "Roxie and the Hooligans" by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. The other is the so far ignored "Younguncle Comes To Town" by Vandana Singh. Now for years I've been complaining to friends, family, and blogosphere alike that there are far too few Indian children's books brought to America. For crying out loud, they're already going to be in English! How hard is it to bring in some literature from another culture? And now it's as if Viking Children's Books has heard my plea. Straight from India (though written by a resident of Massachusetts who was born in Delhi) comes the first adventure of Younguncle. He can't hold down a job. He was kidnapped by monkeys as a child. And he hasn't an American equivalent anywhere that I can find.
Sarita, Ravi, and their little baby sister are just thrilled. Their crazy relative Younguncle (everyone has forgotten his real name) is coming to live with them for the very first time. Younguncle is their father's youngest brother and he's like nobody they've ever met. He's incredibly intelligent, sweet, good with kids, and afraid of settling down in any way. Once he moves in with the family, everyone in the village gets to know and love him. Of course, he can't stay in any one job for any amount of time. It isn't that he doesn't enjoy his work. He enjoys it way too much. He scares off customers with his intense adoration of car repair, sewing, and train timetables. At the same time, he manages to get mixed up in all kinds of trouble. There's his constant battle with the family baby who is intent on devouring one of his shirts. He manages to rescue his uncle's prize-winning horse from rich and powerful schemers. He employs some naughty monkeys in the search for a beloved village cow. By and large, if there's a mystery to be solved or an adventure to be had, Younguncle is on it. This is modern day India as few American kids have ever seen it before (and will ever see it again, for that matter).
The review of this title in Booklist was more than a little harsh, by the way. In it, the reviewer states, "The chief charm of these low-key stories, for American readers, is in their introduction to Indian culture, family life, lore, and legend". I respectfully disagree. Not about how well the book introduces Indian culture, mind you. You are certainly not going to find a book in America that talks about that particular country with a narrative that's half as light-hearted and easy going as this one. And certainly not for this reading level. Keep your "Blue Jasmine"s. I'm sticking with "Younguncle". But for Booklist to say that this is the chief charm of the title is a bit disingenuous. Humor is hard. Drama is simple (see the aforementioned "Blue Jasmine" which is very good but...). So the fact that Singh's book is as honestly amusing as it is no small feat. Singh works in subtle jokes alongside wonderful vocabulary words (as in a sentence about mangoes that reads that they were, "large, golden, luscious, and ambrosial, enough to inspire poetry in the most prosaic soul"). The slapstick scenes are funny without getting gross. The funny stuff is honestly funny.
Actually, you know what book this reminded me for quite some time? "Mr. Popper's Penguins" by Richard Atwater. The reading level and the good-natured animal-inspired insanity just struck a similar tone with me. On the other hand, Younguncle himself views the world in a particularly Pippi Longstockingish way. You wouldn't be surprised in the least to find him living with a horse or crashing a tea party (which he essentially does when he wants to break up his sister's arranged marriage). Not every book to hit bookshelves gets a blurb from Ursula Le Guin. This one did. And not every early chapter book is going to talk about a culture outside of America with as much charm, verve, and honest-to-goodness down-to-earth storytelling as, "Younguncle Comes To Town". The second book in this series is already out in India. Let's encourage Viking to bring it stateside as well by giving this first novel a shot. Fine fine reading.