Red Cedar fiction nominee (2017/2018) Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami is completely and utterly charming. It is a sweet, gentle, clear-eyed story about a girl who loves books, and what happens when she rouses her community to activism on behalf of Book Uncle, an elderly man who runs a free lending library.
Here’s the blurb from the inside jacket:
Every day, Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who was set up a free lending library on the street corner. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety book-stand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.
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 — a best friend, Reeni, and Anil, who has a blue belt in karate. And she has family and neighbors. More, she has an idea that came right out of the last book she borrowed from Book Uncle.
So Yasmin and her friends get to work. Ideas grow like cracks in the sidewalk, and soon the whole effort is breezing along nicely.
Or is it? Maybe it’s spinning right out of control.
Yasmin is nine years old. Every day after school she stops at Book Uncle’s stall and borrows a new book: she has read a book every day since she turned eight. Yasmin’s love for stories emanates from every page. She loves words — and sometimes words slip out of her mouth before she realizes how they will hurt somebody else.
There is a strong sense of the community within the settings of home (an apartment building), school, and the local streets in a contemporary (mildly futuristic?*) Indian city, as Yasmin runs about her daily life, passing and talking with the adults who live nearby.
I liked that not all the words are translated. There is no definition of istri, although one of the constant adults in Yasmin’s life is the istri lady. The context provides enough for a working definition, and curious readers can have the pleasure of looking things up for themselves.
The activism part unfolds naturally and beautifully. The task is not only so simple as getting candidates to care, but to elect the candidate who will respond to public interest in an issue, and holding this candidate to their electoral promises. It was wonderful to see how the characters (and author) acknowledge corruption and self-focused public servants and at the same time hope and act for the best – and bring out the best in others. Similarly, Yasmin and her friends’ campaign is based on compassion, not purity politics, and spreads through their communities – at school in Mrs. Rao’s classroom, on the streets, in shops – because of love and logic. Yasmin and her friends don’t pressure others to join them, they invite them, and draw others in through their own compassion and through the relationships the people in their community have with Book Uncle. The narrative feels personal throughout the story: Yasmin is believable and you want to believe in her.
To counter the less-than-stellar officials are a bevy of decent adults including Yasmin’s beloved Book Uncle, who both as a teacher and as a librarian works to help his community. (Shout out to real bookmobile librarians! You are a blessing to your communities.)
For those who love words, books, libraries, friendship, and justice.
*Republic Day (January 26) takes place during the narrative, so the story takes place roughly between January and February in an unnamed year. The setting comes across as modern – there is tv and text messaging – but the president of India in the story is a woman. *crosses fingers for more women as heads of state in the near future*