The Night Diary

 

The term historical fiction may sound like an oxymoron.  We believe history to be true and fiction to be a concept or idea invented by the imagination.  The word history is complex in nature, his-story (insert eye roll and a deep sigh here), which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines first as:

1: tale, story

and follows with:

2: a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes

Our brains like to categorize…good and bad, young and old, fact and fiction, etc, hence the concept of historical fiction is difficult to grasp for many young readers.  However the content of historical fiction is often easier to contemplate and relate to than non-fiction.  Historical fiction gifts us the opportunity to meet and connect with characters from all over the world during a specific moment in history, learn about their lives (joys and struggles) and experience that very sweet spot in literature where fact and fiction mingle.

I have traveled to India consecutively over the past three years and I have learned a great deal about Indian culture and history from texts, conversation and films.  However, the history of India’s independence from Britain in 1947 and the complications that resulted in the division/creation of two countries (Pakistan and India) has remained a murky mess in my understanding of India’s past.

I recently read The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani and not only fell in love with the voice of 12 year old Nisha who narrates the story but also with Hiranandani’s talented writing skills.  She cleverly weaves fact and fiction together as she shares the complexity of Pakistan’s partition after India is newly freed from Britain.

Title:  The Night Diary

Regional/Cultural focus:  India and Pakistan (1947)

Author:  Veera Hiranandani

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

Themes:  family, belonging, identity, social justice

Nisha receives a diary on her 12th birthday, a safe space for her to record her thoughts and feelings.  Nisha is shy and struggles to talk with others, hence she finds solace in “sharing” her words in her diary.  The year is 1947 and Nisha discovers that while some people are celebrating India’s independence from Britain, her family has little to rejoice in.  Nisha’s mother (who has passed away) was Muslim and her father is Hindu.  When the area of India that Nisha lives in becomes Pakistan, she and her family must flee.  Nisha and her family become refugees and embark on a dangerous journey to reach their new home on the other side of the border.

Told through a series of letters that Nisha writes to her mother in her diary, we learn of Nisha’s story and in turn, a dramatic moment in history.

What I love:

  • A diary!  Reading words in a diary format feels intimate and personal.
  • Nisha has a twin brother, Amil.  While siblings, they have different strengths and weaknesses  and provide the reader with varied points of view throughout the book.
  • Hiranandani’s words are heart-breaking and tragic at times.  She shares experiences that are alarming and real and yet, Nisha’s story is also one of hope, love and integrity.

Discussion:

  • The Night Diary is a refugee story.  What are some of the current refugee plights in the world today?
  • We see Nisha’s image of herself change throughout the book.  Often she doesn’t identify herself as being brave.  Do you think Nisha is brave?  Why or why not?
  • Hiranandani frequently writes about food and meals in The Night Diary.  Why do you think she has chosen to do this?  What is the importance of food and meals in your family?

Activities:

  • The Night Diary is a story of identity.  Make a list of words that you would use to describe  your own identity.  Take your writing a step further and create a zine about your identity.
  • Hiranandani uses abundant figurative language (similes and metaphors)  in her book.  Some examples include: “I  needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them” (p.36) and  “She was like an old, soft blanket that I barely even noticed was there” (p. 141).  What are a few of your favorite similes and metaphors from the story?
  • Nisha occasionally alludes to Gandhi.  Investigate, who was Gandhi?  What did he believe in?
  • Learn about the religions in the story including Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Happy reading!

If  you love juvenile historical fiction as much as I do, you might also enjoy the following titles:

If you’d like to explore refugee stories, consider:

 

 

 

 

Big Red Lollipop

Regional focus:  South East Asia Diaspora

Author: Sophie Blackall

Illustrator:  Rukhsana Khan

Genre:  children’s literature

I’ve been away from academia for a long time…two decades to be exact.  While I love children’s literature and enjoy delving deep into the cultural themes depicted in stories for young audiences, I am rarely challenged to explore all angles of  my book choices.

Mohit, a friend for years, bilingual educator, teacher trainer, global citizen and a current graduate student at the University of Texas, Austen has been visiting La Puerta Abierta for the past two weeks leading teacher workshops, modeling multimodal language activities and living the day-to-day with our students and staff at our center.

In between his activities with our school community, I take advantage of ten minute time gaps to “talk” children’s literature with him and to catch the pulse on current trends and on-going controversies in the realm of education.  There are moments when I fear that I’ve been away from the academic circuit for too long, like when we plunged into the children’s classic Tikki Tkiki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, published in 1968.  I remember repetitively  listening to a recording of Tikki Tikki Tembo on my plastic record player as a child, marveling at the illustrations that transported me to far away and “exotic” places.  I memorized the tongue twister of sounds that accompanied the name of the main character.  In fact, Tikki Tikki Tembo has also become a favorite for teachers and students at La Puerta Abierta.  Hence, when  Mohit discussed the cultural misreprestentations so abundantly present in the story, I was bewildered.  I pulled my tattered childhood copy of Tikki Tikki Tembo off my  shelf and reread the text and examined the illustrations.  The lack of cultural authenticity was startling.

I  recently purchased Big Red Lolipop when a friend recommended it and I quickly fell in love with the bright, bold illustrations by Sophie Blackall and Rukhsana Khan’s tale of  sisterly dynamics.  Khan and Blackall  create scenes that are in many ways universal, and yet, provide the reader with a unique glimpse of life of a Pakastani family living North America that is distinctly authentic.

I was convinced that I had discovered my next title for Sail Away Story, and then…I talked with Mohit! I learned that yes, in the academic world, there is some criticism of Big Red Lolipop.  For example, why does Ami (the mother of the main character) not know what a birthday party is?  Many Pakastani’s do celebrate birthdays and a reader might make assumptions that Ami is simple or unengaged.

That said, Mohit did endorse Big Red Loliop.  In his words:

The book will resonate with South Asian children and allow  all readers a window into the domestic life of a Pakistani family in North America that is “just like other families” in some ways, and different in others.

Later in the day he sent me an essay by Rudine Sims-Bishop which he had studied in a previous graduate course.  Sims-Bishop states “books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.  These windows are also sliding doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.  When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.  Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience.  Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

Big Red Lollipop provides both windows and mirrors for our young readers as they begin to understand themselves and the world at large more profoundly.

While I have no plans of returning  to the world of academia in the near future, I remain grateful for friends and colleagues who connect me to current trends in education and cultural representation, and in turn, encourage me to delve deeper in my understanding of children’s literature.

About:

Big Red Lollipop is a story told from the perspective of Rabina, who is invited to her first birthday party.  When her mother (Ami) insists that she must bring her little sister Maryam along to the celebration, Rabina is mortified and worried not only about what the other children will think of her, but what disasters her sister will ignite.  Maryam does spark a whirlwind of chaos, and Rabina is furious.  However, as the story progresses, we learn that sisterly love often surpasses sibling squabbles and that  forgiveness is a powerful tool.

What I love:

  • Blackall’s artistic choices and attention to detail  with Ami’s salwar kameez (traditional dress of women in the Punjab region), the raja (quilt) on the children’s bed and the embroidered pillows on the sofa allow the reader to glimpse into the lives of a Pakistani family living in North America.
  • Khan’s message goes deeper than “fair is fair.”  She explores real solutions of compassion and forgiveness.
  • In a time when islamophobia is very much alive, I am hopeful to find children’s books that represent Muslim characters in dignified, every-day roles.

Themes:  South East Asia Diaspora, forgiveness, family

Discussion:

  • Why do you think that Ami might not be familiar with birthday parties?
  • What are a few clues that help you to understand that Rabina’s family has origins in a different country?
  • What is forgiveness?  When have you had to offer forgiveness to another person?  Have you ever had to ask for forgiveness?
  • Who do you identify most with in the story?  Why?

Connections:

  • What is your favorite sweet?  Draw an exaggeratedly big picture of it in the style of Blackall’s  lollipop.
  • Rabina’s family is originally from Pakistan.  Find Pakistan on a map.  Investigate interesting facts about the country and culture.
  • Make a list of ways you could welcome a new immigrant  like Rabina into your school, community or neighborhood.
  • Listen and watch  Rukhsana Kahn read Big Red Lollipop here.

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