Asha & the Spirit Bird

“I screw my eyes tightly closed, place my palms together and say a prayer …. I hear the rushing water of the Ganges, the mountain winds whistling their way through the valleys of Moormanali and connect to the ancient rhythms of my ancestors.” (241)

Asha lives in the Himalayan foothills, helping her mother on their farm but missing her father, who works in a distant factory. He hasn’t sent any letters or money for months, so when a moneylender threatens to take Asha’s house and her mother says they’ll have to leave for England, she runs away to discover what’s happened to her father and bring him home. Watched over by a bearded vulture who may be her grandmother’s spirit and accompanied by her more skeptical and practical best friend Jeevan, she hides on a train, faces a tiger in a snowy forest, and escapes child slavery on an adventure to find her father.

Asha & the Spirit Bird is a magical realist novel that celebrates interconnectedness and questions producerism as Asha fights to continue her traditional farming lifestyle. Characters’ different ways of living from the land (grazing cows and sheep, working with elephants, growing cotton and mangoes) draw attention to the connections between plants, humans, and animals. The book develops the idea of spiritual connections via the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, as Asha recognizes a vulture as the spirit of her grandmother and encounters other ancestors in animal forms along the journey; additionally, the mango seed she lovingly nurtures symbolically connects with her father’s recovery. Her awe-inspiring encounters with wild animals are refreshingly different from depictions of cuddly animal companions in many children’s books.

The story also raises important social justice and environmental justice issues around recycling and waste management. Asha and Jeevan’s scariest challenge is escaping capture by a gang who enslave street children and make them work on a stinking, dangerous rubbish heap to “pick out metals, electrical wires and glass bottles” (185). This episode highlights these issues as systemic since the police are bribed to turn a blind eye. The waste-filled city contrasts with Asha’s rural home, implying a critique of the producerism that generates such waste. Throughout the book, Asha and Jeevan eat sustainable local food; the scene when they eat at a fast food restaurant is an interesting counterpoint useful for exploring how capitalism (or rather producerism) manufactures consumer demand, since they find the food appealing both due to its unusual taste and because it is “all wrapped up in paper, like little presents” (176). The book’s memorable settings stage different attitudes towards animals and our environments, making it an excellent cross-curricular class reader.

©2024 ClimateLit (Catherine Olver)

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Publisher: Chicken House Books, 2019

Pages: 276

ISBN: 9781911490197

Audience: Questers (8-13)

Format: Novels

Topics: Animal Companions, Capitalism, Consumerism, Environmental Justice, Interconnectedness, Interspecies Kinship, Local Food, Pollution, Producerism, Recycling, Waste Management

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