A few hours after posting my rant about violence in children’s books, I picked up Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. I knew it had to do with Burma (which some refer to as Myanmar) and life under its military dictatorship. I somehow missed that the story was about child soldiers.
That’s probably because I didn’t pay attention to the excerpt on the back:
“Take the boys only, Win Min,” I overhear him telling a tall gangly soldier. “Make them obey.”
But there was the book, on my lap. And I had been told it was really good. “I can always put it down if it becomes too hard to read,” I told myself. I looked up a few hours later and I was halfway through. I finished it the following morning.
Bamboo People is a moving tale about two boys, one Burmese, the other Karenni (a minority ethnic group), caught in the world of poverty, repression and violence brought on by the military junta that rules Burma. It’s also about what happens to boys who become soldiers.
Though Perkins does not avoid the violence the army creates, the book is not about the violence. Nor is it a polemic. It’s a story about people. Violence occurs but it does not govern the plot. Though we feel its lingering presence, Perkins only invokes it when it makes sense to the story. What matters to the reader is each boy's survival and growth into adulthood under tragic circumstances. There is hope in this story, because the people Perkins describe are hopeful themselves. Whether this hope is warranted is left for the readers to decide.
The book has received many kudos: it’s a Junior Library Guild Selection; it was picked for the ALA/YALSA Top Ten 2011 Novel for Young Adults; it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and another from School Library Journal; and it has been named the Children's Literature Honor book by the APALA arm of the American Library Association .
I can see why. Bamboo People is a rich and smooth read. The story feels real, not the least pretty, yet it doesn’t lead to despair. Perhaps that’s because despairing people don’t survive, and ultimately, Bamboo People is about survival.