A Trip to Burma with “Bamboo People”

July 1st, 2010 by

Bamboo People by Mitali PerkinsIf you read Nancy’s post about her experience at Book Expo America, then you know that I snatched up her copy of Mitali Perkins’ Bamboo People before you can say, “Excuse me, where are you taking my book? Hey, I wanted to read that!”

Part of the reason I wanted to check out the book (which comes out today) is because I knew it had been getting lots of good reviews. But the bigger reason is because Bamboo People takes place in Burma (also known as Myanmar), and as you might recall from my posts about traveling to Burma last winter, that’s where my mom grew up.

My mom pointing to the address of the house in Rangoon (the former capital of Burma) where she was born and grew up.

There aren’t many books set in Burma — let alone kids’ books — so I was pumped to get my hands on a copy of Bamboo People. And as soon as I got ahold of the book, I was hooked.

The story is broken up into two parts:

Part 1 is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Chiko, the educated son of a doctor. But he’s not leading a comfortable life at all. The military government has imprisoned Chiko’s father, and he and his mother live in fear that Chiko will be forced into army service at any minute. Then their nightmare comes true, and Chiko’s off to the jungle for training — forced to serve a government that oppresses its people, and to fight a native group that Chiko doesn’t believe is the enemy.

Part 2 is narrated by Tu Reh, also 15 years old. He is a member of the native group defending themselves from the Burmese government. As a child, he watched Burmese soldiers burning his village — so unlike Chiko, he believes in his cause. But what will he do when everything he thinks he knows is challenged?

As you can see, the story is totally gripping. I couldn’t want to see what would happen next and read a few pages whenever I had a spare moment — to the point where I would pull out the book in the elevator, on a 5-minute bus ride, even while I waited by the photocopier. Yes, the story is THAT suspenseful.

My mom chatted with these girls from the Pa-Oh tribe in Burma. They're a different tribe than in the book, but the two groups have some cultural similarities.

But beyond that, I also enjoyed getting a view into the situation in Burma, which doesn’t get a lot of attention in the United States. And even though I visited Burma not too long ago, a lot of what I read in the book was new to me!

So I lent Bamboo People to my mom (sorry, Nancy, you’re never getting your book back!), and I asked her what she thought, as a former Burmese citizen.

Like me, my mom had a lot of good things to say about the writing, but she also said, “I think the most important thing is that [the author] is bringing attention to what’s happening in Burma (for both young adults and adults).”

And my mom learned some new things through the book herself! She said: “In Burma, it is well-known about the young soldiers in the ‘insurgent’ armies — usually used out of necessity and/or cultural beliefs. I also knew (articles have been written) about the army using forced labor, but I did not know about the tactics like rounding them up at fake centers.”

Peasant workers along the highway (Photo from Worldfocus News)

My mom also told me that the Burmese government doesn’t only use forced labor in the army: A few years ago, the government started building a new city, and they moved their capital there (imagine if our national government moved out of Washington, D.C. to the middle of nowhere). To connect the new city to the old capital, a new road had to be built. My mom explained to me that all the villagers who lived along the route of the new road had to “volunteer” to build the highway. And many of the people doing construction on the new city (which is still in progress) are children.

The more I learn about about forced labor in Burma, the sadder I feel. But you should know that reading Bamboo People is not a depressing experience at all! Like I said, it was action-packed — with even a little romance thrown in — and on top of all the hardship, there’s something hopeful about the main characters.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what my mom had to say: “I read the book yesterday and finished it in practically one sitting… It was easy to read and it moved fast because the short chapters keep one going. Although the book dealt with many terrible things, I like the boys’ upbeat and brave voices. I also like the way the author made them both seem authentic yet noble.”

— Karen (with help from her mom!)

As much as Karen enjoys talking about children’s books, she’s considering taking a break and having her mom write more guest book reviews for Kidsmomo…
More about Karen »

One Response

  • Hahaha me writes:
    July 1st, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    I want to read it now! I have a long list for summer reading but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

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