Review of the 48-Hour Book Challenge: Looking For Bapu
I’m forever attempting to sniff out interesting trends in children’s fiction. This year, the trend seems to be hinging on how children’s books respond to a post-9/11 world. We’ve seen stories where characters’ parents are sent to Iraq (“The Homework Machine” by Dan Gutman) and stories that take a critical stance against McCarthyism in the past (“The Loud Silence of Francine Green”, by Karen Cushman). What we haven’t seen much of, however, was a point of view that wasn’t whitey white white. Now we have, “Looking For Bapu”, and all that has changed. In a story that takes place mere days and weeks after the World Trade Towers collapsed, author Anjali Banerjee brings us the kind of book that we need a helluva lot more of in our libraries and bookstores. A well-written tale from the point of view of a kid who isn’t WASPy.
Apu and his grandfather Bapu have always been especially close. Ever since Bapu immigrated to America from his native India the two have been like peas in a pod. Imagine the eight-year-old boy’s horror, then, when Bapu has a stroke right in front of his eyes while the two are watching for birds. Anu is beyond distraught. He keeps having little visions of his grandfather watching over him. By this Anu believes that Bapu doesn’t want to leave, so he’s going to do everything in his power to bring him back. This might mean becoming a holy roller or an enlightened being. It might mean employing the help of his friends Izzy (a homeschooler) and Unger (money-obsessed). Whatever it means, Anu is going to find an answer to his dilemma, and he’s going to do so in the way that works best for him, be it magic, evoking the gods, or shaving off all his hair before class pictures.
Banerjee is particularly good at finding the little moments in a book and synthesizing them into meaningful turns of phrase. For example, at one point in this story Anu and his father are waiting at the airport for a relative to arrive. While there they discuss how people like Sikhs have been persecuted by the ignorant people who think that they’re Muslims. The Sikh they speak with is told by a woman that to wear his turban after 9/11 is, “very brave”. This leads Anu to think, “Is it brave to be what you are, I wonder? Brave to just be yourself?”. Kids will find no easy answers in this book. Just questions that are well worth the asking.
The fact that the hero in this book was eight-years-old was a mighty interesting stylistic choice on the part of the author. Because of its reading level, this book is probably not going to be read by many eight-year-olds. It’ll be read by ten to twelve-year-olds who would normally not find themselves with a protagonist of such young years. I wondered to myself why Banerjee made Anu as young as she did. Heck, he apparently still believes in Santa Claus! Perhaps she felt that a child any older would not feel the pain of losing a beloved older relative quite as keenly. Maybe she thought Apu’s wild let’s-bring-my-grandfather-back-from-the-dead schemes wouldn’t be believable on anyone older than eight. Whatever the reason, it’ll be very interesting to see who the demographic is that reads this book. Tweens, by and large, prefer to hear stories about kids older than themselves. Whether “Looking For Bapu” is the exception to this rule remains to be seen. None of this is to say that a kid of eleven years wouldn’t find this book absolutely fascinating. They just might not be able to relate to a younger character.
In Anu I found someone that reminded me of a type of child I’ve found in other children’s books. His search for the divine (and wish to become holy) is echoed in books like Frank Cottrell Boyce’s, “Millions”, and the recent Dutch import, “The Book of Everything”, by Guus Kuijer. Both are stories of boys who have tapped directly into the divine (often in kooky ways). The difference is, of course, that while the books by Boyce and Kuijer are about Christian boys who see saints and Jesus, Anu is Hindu. At least, I think he is. In, “Looking For Bapu”, Banerjee introduces the nature of Hinduism to child readers. The only problem is, I’m not entirely certain that the word, “Hindu” appears much in the book. We learn that Anu celebrates Christmas and in the past has waited up for Santa Claus. And we get some hint of what Anu might be when his parents say to him, “Anu, you can decide to be anything you want – Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist. We’ve taught you about all religions so that, eventually, you can make up your own mind”. This suggests that Anu is a little bit of everything. However, his attachment to his grandfather’s beliefs (including building a shrine to Shiva) places him firmly in the Hindu camp. Unless a child is intimately familiar with the word “Hindu”, however, they won’t know why Anu believes the things he does. An explanation or Author’s Note would not have been out of place.
In any case, “Looking For Bapu” is a fabulous book to have on hand. Well-written, engaging, and understandable, it has its flaws and its triumphs. A measured look at a new way in which a person can mourn the loss of a beloved, this offers a perspective many American children will find entirely new. Definitely worth considering.
On shelves October 10th.