This seems to be some sort of mantra for Uma Krishnaswami because the lovable protagonist of Book Uncle and Me, a retired schoolmaster, runs a pavement lending library with a board that reads “Books. Free. Give One. Take One. Read. Read. Read.” All set to do her share of read, read, reading is the spunky heroine, nine-year old Yasmin Kader who has made a pact (with herself) to read one book a day for the rest of her life. She is already at 400 books at the beginning of this narrative. Partnering Yasmin on her book marathon is Book Uncle. Yasmin is his “Number One Patron” and he always has the perfect book for her. Providing the “right book for the right person at the right time” is, in fact, Book Uncle’s speciality.
Yasmin and Book Uncle have a wonderful relationship and the magic of books and reading is explored beautifully through their individual perspectives. “Sometimes you have to let the perfect book sit in your mind for a while before it begins to mean something,” Book Uncle explains to Yasmin. And, at one point, Yasmin discovers, “How strange that a skinny book like that can leave behind so many questions in my mind!”
In this idyllic world of reading for free, there erupts a problem. Someone has complained to the mayor of the city and one morning Book Uncle receives a letter saying he cannot run his pavement lending library any longer unless he gets a permit. He cannot afford to get a permit and is forced to close down his library. Young Yasmin springs into action to mobilize support for Book Uncle, discovering several patrons along the way, some of them totally unexpected, of this generous man. Alas, the devious ways of the city’s politicians during elections threaten to scuttle their well-laid plan and Yasmin has to think on her feet.
Yasmin is a delightful combination of a dreamy yet thoughtful child, one who speaks her mind without stopping to think. She along with best friend Reeni and their classmate Anil, who karate-speaks and karate-punches his way through the book, are a great trio. They bicker a little, are there for one another and work well as a team. The book is Yasmin’s first person narrative and the author stays true to Yasmin’s voice while giving us a tale full of warmth and humour.
The adults in the book are well-etched figures and there are several interesting characters. The most delightful of these are the bossy, know-it-all istri lady and the taciturn ghatam player, Chinna Abdul Sahib, “who does not need to say much as his singing-ringing pot-drum does all the talking for him.”
Uma Krishnaswami, born in India, has been living in New Mexico for many years. She succeeds in a lyrical evocation of Chennai (though the city is never named) with its uneven pavements and its La-la-la Restaurant serving free scoops of the new flavour of pomegranate ice-cream. Told entirely in free verse, the rhythms work powerfully even in a silent reading. For instance, in the depiction of the “tall-growing-taller pile of clothes” on the istri lady’s table, or the “pink-flowery feather-leafy branches ” of the rain tree.
The book joyfully celebrates diversity and pluralism simply by presenting a situation where a motley bunch of warm-hearted, fiercely individualistic people come together for a cause. And, while the book is rooted in “the corner of St Mary’s Road and 1st Cross Street”, it succeeds in transcending cultural boundaries by giving us characters whom we care about in a story with universal appeal.
The illustrations provide a beautifully nuanced background score to the story. They capture the spirit of the city, its people, and even its birds, perfectly. The immensely talented Priya Kuriyan delights the reader with illustrations that appear on every single page, making this book an absolute steal for its affordable price. Yasmin is completely lovable with her curly, perched-on-the-head-ponytail and jhumkas.
On some pages, the free verse is elegantly framed either by telephone wires, or book shelves, or electioneering flags. The silhouettes of figures, with the emotion apparent in the slouch of a shoulder or a purposeful gait, are just brilliant and provide a nice contrast to the pen-and-charcoal sketches. In one illustration, Priya Kuriyan adds her own brand of humour by showing the books in a typical classroom bookshelf where the dictionaries, encyclopaedias and atlas outnumber the fiction titles.
Book Uncle and Me won the Scholastic Asian Book Award in 2011, an award which honours the best of Asian writing in English. It was also joint winner of the 2013 Crossword Award for children’s fiction in what was an unusual decision to make this superb book share the honours for a prize that it deserved to have enjoyed all on its own.
Book Uncle and Me could spark many conversations on the power of books, the magic of reading, the ability even the youngest among us have to initiate change, the strength of community, and the wonderful ideas and thoughts that are ours for the taking if only we can read, read, read.