By Mitali Perkins
One of the strengths in YA fiction is that it can introduce readers of all ages to any number of places, situations and issues. Mitali Perkins provides examples of what it is like to live in the country where, earlier this month, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released form house arrest after Burma's junta of generals had kept her hidden for 15 of the past 21 years.
The pro-democracy leader is Burmese in a country where the rulers prefer the name "Myanmar", a name that the United States and few other countries refuse to recognize in protest of the brutal regime that rules the country.
In Perkins's novel, Chiko, a young city boy, lives on little food but lots of love as he and his mother cope with his physician father being arrested by the dictators. He is hopeful, naive, loves learning and has a crush on the neighbor girl. When he finds a newspaper ad seeking applicants for teaching positions, he hopes he can start earning money to help his mother. The wise neighbor woman knows better; he is going to be conscripted into the army.
As an involuntary army recruit, Chiko is beaten and subjected to indignities great and small. He is befriended by a streetwise boy who worries about his sister left behind in the city. Chiko is maneuvered into taking part in a patrol, but it's as demeaning as his training. He's the lead boy sent out to look for landmines in the jungle.
The first-person, present tense narrative changes during Chiko's mission to that of Tu Reh, a teenager who is the government's enemy. He is on his first mission from the refugee camp with his father. When they discover the wounded Chiko, Tu Reh's father tells his angry son that he has choices, that there is more to life than kill or be killed. Ecclesiastes "a time for war, a time for peace" is read to him. Tu Reh helps save Chiko and gets him to the refugee camp.
Once there, not everyone is glad to see them. Chiko's fate, as decided by the camp, forces Tu Reh to manage his feelings about conflicting loyalties, old alliances and doing the right thing.
The novel is a simple story that can easily be extrapolated to discussions about loyalty, gangs and bullying, in addition to a heavily researched portrait of current conditions in Burma. The narrative style and pace are well-suited to the youngest secondary readers, while the story may appeal to reluctant readers who are willing to try fiction set in a different country. The author includes information about current conditions in Burma in an afterword.
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