BOOK REVIEWS

Karma Khullar's Mustache

A review of Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Sylvia Rich

Karma Khullar’s Mustache is the story of a young girl who starts growing facial hair the summer before middle school. Though it’s really written for the 7-to-12-year-old set I wanted to read it entirely for my own reasons, as a woman who has had facial hair since high school and struggled with it then as now (do I really need to remove my facial hair because of someone else’s beauty ideals? If I do, can I manage to do without making red bumps on my neck? Etc). However, the story is also about a lot of other things.

 

Throughout the book, Karma has a completely believable reaction to the facial hair. She begs her best friend to help her find a solution, but keeps failing to find an opening to talk to her (white, facial-hairless) mother, who is always busy at work and, when she’s home, bickering with Karma’s father. As an adult, looking back on my own adolescence, I was torn about how I wanted the book to end: on the one hand, I thought it’d be most realistic, and in some way most satisfying for Karma’s own prospects of getting along, if she found a safe and sustainable way of removing the facial hair. On the other hand, in that aspirational way of wanting to teach young women that nobody gets to tell them their bodies aren’t good enough, I wanted there to be some less realistic lesson about how the young girl accepts her mustache as a totally legitimate part of herself. Ultimately, the book tries to strike a kind of middle ground that I found unsatisfying.

 

But actually, the parts of this sweet young adults’ novel that I found most moving were not about Karma’s mustache at all. They were about her feeling like she was losing her old best friend, the decision to accept a new friend, and her struggle with how to lead an ethical life as a ten-year-old.

It was better at describing the struggles than it was at describing resolutions, because the author seemed to connect with much more realism to the troubles of a racialized middle-school girl growing up in the U.S. than she did with any possible solutions to those troubles. And I guess that’s for obvious reasons. It reminded me a lot of some of the books that I used to read at that age, by Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and others in that style. Karma is sometimes confused about what she wants or what messages others are sending her, but she has a good heart and a commendable interest in staying true to herself. She’ll certainly appeal to a lot of kids of similar ages, struggling to understand their place in shifting social landscapes.

Astronaut Annie

By Suzanne Slade (Author) and Nicole Tadgell (Illustrator)

Review by Sylvia 

Astronaut Annie (Tilbury House, 2018) is a sweet and life-affirming short tale of a girl who takes the gifts of her grandparents and parents to help realize her dream of becoming an astronaut. 

 

Career day is coming up at Annie’s school and she invites her grandparents and parents to come and find out what she wants to be when she grows up. Career day at Annie’s school is a big deal: family are invited to an auditorium to watch the students declare their intended career. Annie invites her grandmother, grandfather, mother, and father to the career day and tells them she is excited to reveal her chosen career. Each of them thinks she will follow in their footsteps or fulfill their own dreams – as a journalist, a baker, a mountain climber, and a basketball player. Each of the adults also gives her a physical object to accompany their desire for her. Their desires function as elements of inheritance and support that she can weave into her dream. 

She takes the camera from her journalist grandfather, the oven mitts from her baker grandmother, the hiking backpack from her father who dreams of climbing mountains, and the high-top sneakers from her mother who loved playing basketball in school, and she creates her astronaut costume out of them. She then puts on these elements on stage and transforms into an astronaut before their eyes. It was a great symbolic rendering of the kind of empowerment that a supportive family can give a kid to follow her dreams. 

 

The back of the book gives short biographies of four women astronauts along with information on the phases of the moon. Despite the backmatter on women astronauts, the story itself makes no mention of the fact that Annie is a racialized girl going into a STEM field. She’s just a kid revealing to her family that she’s found her passion when all of them have their own ideas of what she should do. And while it’s important for some of our kids’ books to grapple issues of sexism, racism and prejudice head-on, it’s also nice to have books that promote diversity without making a thing about it. I appreciated the message that family members don’t need to have special expertise in the child’s particular dream in order to give the child the tools to go after what she wants.  

 

I’d recommend this book for ages 4-8, especially those who dream of spaceships.

Jenneli's Dance

By Elizabeth Denny

Review by Julia 

My absolute favorite kids’ book is Jenneli’s Dance by Métis author, Elizabeth Denny. My kids love it and I am happy to read it again and again, which commonly happens around our house with books. The author mixes good messaging about cultural pride and being different into an engaging story. My kids stay interested in contrast with some books that focus so much on the message that the story isn’t developed enough to draw the reader in.

Jenneli’s Dance is about Jenneli, a young Métis girl, who feels like she doesn’t fit in at school - other kids have sandwiches, while she has bannock, for example. As the story develops, so does Jenneli’s confidence as she realizes that she is really good at jigging (a Métis dance). The book ends with a line I love: “When Jenneli went back to school, she felt that being different was a very good thing indeed. Being Métis made her feel like there was something special about her after all.” I loved watching her develop a positive view of herself. My kids really enjoy hearing about her time with her gramma, going to a fair and all the other things that Jenneli does throughout the book. Kids can relate to her feelings at school with bullies and kids making fun of her.

Recommended for grades 2-3 but my kids have enjoyed Jenneli’s Dance since they were around 4-years-old.

You can buy Jenneli’s Dance at Strong Nations. It may cost a bit more than the big companies but this is a great opportunity to support an Indigenous book store! Strong Nations is located in Nanaimo, BC, with an online store as well.

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