August 22, 2016 Neil Wadhwa

Book Uncle and Me: Paying It Forward

A Guest Post by Uma Krishnaswami

I grew up in India. That was where I learned to read, and where I scribbled secretly in notebooks, acting on my first writing impulses. I became a writer, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

I never know exactly where stories come from. In many ways, most of them seem there already, lurking somewhere and waiting to be pulled out and made clear. I suppose, more than any other books I’ve written, Book Uncle and Me came out of those early reading and writing days.

Yasmin Kader, my nine-year-old protagonist in Book Uncle and Me, is an avid reader who decides she’s going to read a new book every day for the rest of her life. As a child, I was an utterly manic reader. I read everything I could lay my hands on. There was a great shortage of books for children in India back then, so I had to reread all the books in the house several times over. I read Enid Blyton, of course, and tattered copies of A. A. Milne and Beatrix Potter, a couple of Noel Streatfeilds, and quite a bit of Kipling. It was an odd diet for a child from a south Indian family, growing up all over the northern part of the country.

People talk a lot about the importance of having children see themselves in the books they read. I didn’t see myself in anything I read, but then I didn’t expect to. Instead, books taught me how to become other people, fleetingly, temporarily, but in some way indelibly. I’m not saying this is either good or bad. It’s just how it was.

Unlike Yasmin, I didn’t try to read a new book every day. But I could have, quite easily, had there been a ready supply handy. Perhaps that is why I ended up creating Yasmin to do what I might have wanted to do. After that, it seemed only natural to place her in a family that was not exactly like the other families in the community, in a community made up of many different kinds of people. As a writer for children, my own childhood, long ago as it was, remains a vital source of material and emotional memory. Perhaps in the end, writing is about paying it forward.

Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami

Every day, nine-year-old Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has set up a free lending library next to her apartment building. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety bookstand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.

But what can she do? The local elections are coming up but she’s just a kid. She can’t even vote!

Still, Yasmin has friends — her best friend, Reeni, and Anil, who even has a black belt in karate. And she has grownup family and neighbors who, no matter how preoccupied they are, care about what goes on in their community.

Then Yasmin remembers a story that Book Uncle selected for her. It’s an old folktale about a flock of doves trapped in a hunter’s net. The birds realize that if they all flap their wings at the same time, they can lift the net and fly to safety, where they seek the help of a friendly mole who chews a hole in the net and sets them free.

And so the children get to work, launching a campaign to make sure the voices of the community are heard.

An energetic, funny and quirky story that explores the themes of community activism, friendship, and the love of books.

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