Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan,
With Rickshaw Girl, Mitali Perkins (The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen) has given us a coming-of-age chapter book that addresses gender roles, poverty, and resourcefulness while offering a window onto life in contemporary Bangladesh. It also illustrates the power of microfinance, which is transforming lives in Bangladesh, to enable people to lift themselves out of poverty.
Naima's family lives in a one-room hut, and her father supports them by driving a rickshaw. Her younger sister Rashida goes to school, but the family can no longer afford to send Naima, a talented artist who has won the annual prize for the best alpanas (traditional patterns painted by girls to decorate their homes) for several years in a row. Though her father is very proud of his daughters, Naima has begun wishing she had been born a boy so that she could help earn money for her family. Her best friend and secret confidante Saleem, a boy whom she has recently been told to avoid because she is getting older, drives his father's rickshaw to supplement the family's income. Since driving a rickshaw is not an option for girls in her society, Naima devises a scheme: dressed as a boy, she will drive her father's rickshaw while he rests in the afternoon. But immediately after she climbs aboard, Naima loses control of the rickshaw and wrecks it in a thicket. The beautiful rickshaw, not yet paid for, is scratched and dented, considerably increasing her family's financial problems.
Now Naima is more displeased with her status as a girl and even loses interest in painting until she comes up with another scheme to make money. She goes, dressed in boys' clothing, to the newly opened rickshaw repair shop in the next village and is shocked to see that the owner is a woman. Once Naima reveals her own female identity, the entrepreneur, a recipient of a micro-loan for small business, agrees to teach her how to paint rickshaws so that she can pay off her father's rickshaw repairs and eventually earn money of her own.
While few traditions are as confining to women as those of rural Bangladesh, all children will relate to the restrictions that growing up requires. Not only Naima, but also her younger sister and male friend Saleem, are frustrated by society's shifting expectations of them. Naima's determination and resourcefulness reveal, however, that there is hope in their futures and that women's roles are changing in ways that will ultimately be positive for everyone. In fact, in an author's note at the end of the book, Perkins explains that women are statistically more likely than men to invest money in ways that will benefit their entire families (since the book went to press, Bangladeshi Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in microfinance, and 95% of their borrowers are women).
In Naima, Perkins has created a timely character with a healthy, but not unquestioning, respect for her heritage who insists that her culture respect her in return. Characters like this, in life and in fiction, are the people making positive change a reality.