Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

E940_SCH_BornConfused_0.tifReading level: 7.2
Lexile: 890
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Dimple Lala doesn’t know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she’s spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a “suitable boy.” Of course it doesn’t go well — until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web . Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a funny, thoughtful story about finding your heart, finding your culture, and finding your place in America.

Minor spoilers below!

The synopsis of Born Confused is terribly generic: teenage Indian girl living in the US resists family traditions of her parents, struggles to figure out who she is and where she fits in Indian/American culture, fights with her best friend over a boy, and ultimately discovers her identity. Nothing new, right? Maybe not, but what led me to rate this book 5 out of 5 stars (which doesn’t happen very often) was the beautiful writing and the realistic (though not always likeable) characters.

I loved the main character and narrator Dimple mostly because she is so introspective. She works to tease out her feelings so she can analyze them as she wrestles with her identity. Especially in contrast to her best friend Gwen, Dimple is humble and kind. Dimple is a girl I could be friends with, and those, to me, are the best characters.

Now, Gwen is also interesting. We don’t learn until well into the story that she has many secrets, but I didn’t feel like her background excused her from being rude and manipulative at times. Plus, Gwen is overly confident (at least so it appears) and extroverted, the opposite of Dimple (and me), which made her hard to like, but it also made it easy for me to be legitimately mad at her, causing me to be even more on Dimple’s side.

Dimple’s parents are great in that they are annoying and embarrassing but so, so loving. Dimple feels suffocated by them while appreciating all that they do for her, and she has the unique ability to understand their motives while disagreeing but not full-out revolting. Dimple and Gwen talk about Dimple’s parents being “perfect” and how she can’t complain about anything bad in her life because she has two loving parents. Dimple replies that just because her family is intact doesn’t mean she must feel guilty. Rather, she should be appreciative, which she is.

Dimple’s cousin Kavita, we learn late in the story, is a lesbian who comes out of the closet to Dimple. Dimple reacts by embracing this new information while also wrestling with the idea that her “girly” cousin doesn’t fit the stereotypical description of lesbian. Dimple flat out asks her questions to Kavita, who answers thoughtfully and honestly. A beautiful moment.

We also meet Zara, a transvestite who Dimple befriends. And you can’t help but adore Zara with her confidence and strength to be who she is. Coming to know Zara is instrumental in helping Dimple embrace her identity.

While some parents might be upset that Born Confused has lesbians and transvestites, I’m not worried about those parts for the story. However, the characters do smoke pot and discuss sex occasionally, although there’s nothing graphic. For those two reasons, I’m rating it pg-13. And really, this story is written for approximately 9th grade and above (and maybe for more mature middle schoolers) due to the age of characters, what they’re experiencing, and the reading level. The story is beautifully written, but the language is complicated with Indian words, metaphors, pop culture references…you name it. Therefore it’s not ELL friendly.

Lastly, don’t be put off by the length of the book (it’s 512 pages). I listened to the audiobook, and the story breezed right by for me.

Born Confused is my fifteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson

Toads and DiamondsReading level: 5.4…?
Genre: Fairy Tale
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Diribani has come to the village well to get water for her family’s scant meal of curry and rice. She never expected to meet a goddess there. Yet she is granted a remarkable gift: Flowers and precious jewels drop from her lips whenever she speaks.

It seems only right to Tana that the goddess judged her kind, lovely stepsister worthy of such riches. And when she encounters the goddess, she is not surprised to find herself speaking snakes and toads as a reward.

Blessings and curses are never so clear as they might seem, however. Diribani’s newfound wealth brings her a prince—and an attempt on her life. Tana is chased out of the village because the province’s governor fears snakes, yet thousands are dying of a plague spread by rats. As the sisters’ fates hang in the balance, each struggles to understand her gift. Will it bring her wisdom, good fortune, love . . . or death?

Toads and Diamonds came into my possession mostly because the beautiful cover caught my attention. I immediately knew I would purchase it for $0.25 because the story takes place in India, and I’m always looking for books that are not from the white, middle- to upper-class American perspective.

Turns out that judging the book by its cover was a good move. I wasn’t expecting a fairy tale, and at first I didn’t know what to think. Two girls meet a goddess who gives each a “gift”; one girl speaks diamonds and flowers; the other speaks toads and snakes. Okay, that’s pretty fantastical. But then everything else from then on (except for the last chapter) is completely believable. In fact, the author’s note at the end explains that the setting was based off of the Mughal Empire. So it’s not 100% fairy tale or 100% realistic/historical fiction. It’s both, and it took me until about 2/3 of the way through the book to really get into it.

Tana and Diribani are awesome, brave, and dedicated female characters. When their respective crushes come into the picture, I was afraid the story would regress into one of romantics, but it didn’t. Tana rescues her crush while Diribani knows her prince isn’t coming to save her, so she saves herself. The ending didn’t result in happily-ever-after, either…although I secretly wanted it to. Lastly, both girls get into scary and dangerous situations yet they keep their heads and press on.

The author explains at the end that the religion of The Twelve as well as The Believers were not based on any one religion and are in fact both made up but based on the major religions found in India. Gods and goddesses are mentioned throughout, and I could see very picky parents being upset that these gods can have a place in school books but there is no literature in which other religions’ gods take a prominent role. Well, these gods are fictions. And the Judeo-Christian god is mentioned in loads of YA books, if just in passing. And it’s not like this book is pushing a religion or set of beliefs. This is not a religious book even though it may seem as such at a glance.

There’s a lot of hatred between both religions, but characters throughout the story learn some tolerance and understanding. However, I hoped for this change or realization to be less subtle. It’s still a good message to readers, none the less: even though people can be from such “different” religions, there are still similarities between the faiths, and you can still like and understand someone even if they have a different belief system than you.

Scholastic says the reading level is 5.4. I beg to differ. Aside from difficult (for us English-speaking folks) names of people and places, there is just a bunch of vocabulary that I didn’t know. This text certainly has some sophisticated (and beautiful) language, and I’d rate it somewhere in the 8th grade reading level. It might be significantly easier to read and comprehend for readers with familiarity with Indian culture and languages.

Because some of the language is so complex, I don’t think it’s particularly ELL-friendly, unless the student is from India or is familiar with any of the Indian languages. Being familiar with the language construction would make the text flow more easily. Some women are addressed with “Mina” before their names, for example, or are just called “Mina,” which sounds and looks like a name…but is more of a title, like Ms., I think. It’s cultural and linguistic subtleties like these that make the text challenging.