Thursday, February 23, 2012

Picture Book Review - Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia

Hitting the right balance with a culturally specific tale is no easy feat. You want the book to appeal to insiders, by being authentic and a true representation of their cultural experience. At the same time you need it to be something that cultural outsiders can appreciate, even if they have no knowledge of traditions or even language. Tough stuff indeed.

The same is true for intergenerational stories - the plot needs to be believable and realistic. Why is this young kid interested in what an oldster has to say, anyway? What's his/her motivation to listen? We've all read historical fiction in which the often-used trope of "come little child, let me tell you a tale" is trotted out, and most of the time it's thin at best. We just aren't given a good rationale for keeps the kiddies enthralled.

And so, since it is both culturally specific and intergenerational, you might think Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji has the deck stacked against it. But you'd be wrong, because this is a story that works on many levels: specific enough to speak to cultural insiders, broad enough to appeal to outsiders, and held together by the truly believable bond between grandfather and grandson.

The book begins with Aneel's grandparents coming from India. Aneel relishes his time with them, especially Dada-ji's wonderful stories. He loves to hear the tales of Dada-ji's amazing strength as a young lad - wrestling elephants and tying cobras in a knot. And what was the young boy's secret? Eating lots of his mother's fluffy-puffy roti, hot from the grill and topped with spicy mango pickle. Mmmmm! Dada-ji can almost taste the roti now! So Aneel asks everyone to make some, but all the members of the family are busy. It's up to Aneel, and he gets to work, making a huge stack of delicious roti for Dada-ji. When the last scrap of roti has been gobbled up, Dada-ji has his famous strength -- and the two go off to the yard to have some new adventures together.

It's interesting to note that this is the first picture book for both author F. Zia and illustrator Ken Min. The quality of this effort certainly speaks to a pair of artists who know how to craft a work that appeals to a broad audience. Sprinkling culturally specific elements throughout the text, Zia lets us in on what life was like for Dada-ji as a young boy. I especially appreciate that she doesn't interrupt the flow of the story to define the Hindi words, but rather includes a glossary in the back for those of us who may be unfamiliar with the terms. And Min's illustrations are spot-on: you can feel the power welling up in Dada-ji as he gulps down the huge stack of roti, and the shifting perspectives he uses (watching from inside the bowl as Aneel dumps the flour down) add a playful element that's just right. I love the energy that bursts from each of the characters, especially Aneel, who is excited to be doing something for his grandfather.

Sprout LOVED this book, which surprised me because it's a bit on the long side and more introspective than some of his favorites. But he asked for it over and over again, and was thrilled when my husband offered to take us all out for Indian food the other night. (Here he is, enjoying his own hot, hot roti - ok, naan bread, but it was hot and delicious too!)

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, published by Lee & Low
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "What made the lad so strong? It was the hot, hot roti that sizzled and wizzled on Badi-ma's wood hearth. You see, baba, Badi-ma made the best roti around! Hungry villagers trampled tall fields and swam angry rivers to sniff the fluffy-puffy roti that bubbled and wobbled in ghee on the hot, hot tavva pan."

Bonus: interview with F. Zia at The Happy Nappy Bookseller

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