Recommendations from Under the Radar:
Romina's Rangoli, by Malathi Michelle Iyengar
A Guest Column by Pooja Makhijani
Over the past year, I've delivered my presentation, More Than Monkeys, Maharajahs and Mangoes: An Overview of South Asian Literature for Kids, to teachers and librarians in the Tri-State Region. The lecture provides educators with an overview of representations of South Asia and the South Asian diaspora in children’s literature and tools to select authentic books for their classrooms and communities. I frame the discussion with a brief history of South Asian American immigration to the United States. Since the topic is rarely taught in classrooms, many educators are surprised by the following factoids:
—The first known South Asian immigrant entered the United States in 1790
as a maritime worker in Massachusetts. In 1851, six Indians marched in
the Salem Fourth of July parade under the banner of the "East India
Marine Society." [link]
—At least 50 South Asians enlisted and served in the US armed forces at the height of the United States Civil War. [link]
—In the early decades of the 20th century, groups such as the Asian Exclusion League campaigned against South Asian American farm workers who were originally brought from Punjab to the United States by the British to work the Canadian-Pacific railroads. These workers were perceived as an economic threat to native farmers. Laws were passed in California to strip South Asian Americans of their land; in response, many South Asian American men married Mexican American women, which for a time exempted them from these laws. [link][link][link]
Perhaps it was the rich history of these pioneering Punjabi-Mexican families that inspired Malathi Michelle Iyengar's debut picture book, Romina's Rangoli (Shen's Books, 2007). When Miss McMahan asks her class to "create something [for the school's open house] that represents your ancestors, your family, and where you come from... something that represents your heritage," half-Indian American and half-Mexican American Romina feels conflicted. Since both her parents would be coming to the open house; she couldn't envision a project that left one of them out.
Her sister, father, and mother try to help Romina with her dilemma by giving her ideas from both cultures, but it is her neighbor, Mr. Gonzales, who inspires Romina to create a work of art that combines two beautiful folk traditions—rangoli and papel picado. In an informative author's note, Iyengar presents readers with additional background on these two unique arts. Rangoli is a decorative floor art created with rice powder, flower petals, or dried legumes and is commonly found in courtyards and temples throughout South Asia. Papel picado is a pre-Columbian art form in which multilayered sheets of colored paper are cut to make lace-like paper hangings.
Illustrator Jennifer Wanardi's interpretations of rangoli and papel picado complement the text perfectly. Though first-grade teacher Iyengar's dialogue is sometimes pedantic ("You have all weekend to work on your projects. I know you'll all do a great job!" and "So... your project is both Mexican and Indian. How interesting!"), Romina's Rangoli is a very satisfying book. And like Uma Krishnaswami's Bringing Asha Home (Lee & Low Books, 2006), Romina's Rangoli allows an ever-growing demographic—bi-racial, bi-cultural children—to see themselves in the pages of a book.
Pooja Makhijani is the author of Mama's Saris (Little, Brown, 2007). If you are interested in having Pooja speak about South Asian and South Asian American literature at your school or library, please contact her at pooja at poojamakhijani dot com.