Hey guess what! This my very first review of a picture book on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. The book, fully deserving of this honour, is The Boy & the Bindi written by Vivek Shraya and illustrated by Rajni Perera. You might know Vivek Shraya as an artist jill-of-all-trades. I’ve reviewed her poetry book even this page is white and talked about her novel She of the Mountains as one of the great Canadian bisexual books you have to read. (I’ve also got the audiobook of her latest non-fiction book, I’m Afraid of Men, queued up next on my audiobook app). You might also know her as a musician and artist in various other visual mediums. Since she published The Boy & the Bindi in 2016, she can also add picture book author to her long list of artistic ccomplishments.
The Boy & the Bindi is about, well, a boy and his fascination with his Ammi’s (mom) bindi. It’s a sweet story about a gender non-conforming kid who is curious about Ammi’s bindi. He asks “Ammi, why do you wear that dot? What’s so special about that spot?” Readers can learn along with the little kid that it’s called a bindi. But more importantly, we hear about what its deeper meaning is. The boy’s Ammi explains:
My bindi tells me where I’m from.
My bindi reminds me of my mom
And when she gave me my first one.
In this way, Shraya explains how the bindi is a specifically feminine cultural tradition for South Asian women, one that links mothers and daughters to each other. Where, then, does the little boy in this story fit? Easily. When he asks his Ammi for a bindi of his own, she doesn’t hesitate. She reaches into her drawer and says “Ta-da! This one is yours!”
Just like for his Ammi, the boy finds that the bindi is much more than a pretty adornment on his forehead: “As soon as it’s on, I feel so calm / Like all the noise around is gone.” Even under the scrutiny of white kids at school who don’t know what the bindi is, he derives strength and peace from imagining the bindi turning into a star, his forehead turning into the sky, and his whole being feeling light and free. The bindi helps too when feeling “small like a dot / And sometimes ugly like a blot.”
The Boy & the Bindi clearly shows Shraya’s finesse with music and poetry, with its rhythmic rhyming lines very much like a song or poem. She also uses repetition for stylistic effect beautifully. The musicality of the words is matched by the gorgeous lush colours of Rajni Perera’s painted illustrations. The richness of the brown boy and mother’s skin tones is especially striking. I also loved the bright colours in the boy’s imaginative scenes: the blue-purple night sky the boy flies away to and the green jungle growing around him and his Ammi.
When you’ve finished reading the book (for the first time), definitely check out the multiple resources and different ways to experience the book on Vivek Shraya’s website. There’s an audio recording of the author herself reading the book with soothing music playing in the background. There’s a video of Catherine Hernandez (whose name you might recognize as the author of Scarborough, a debut novel I reviewed last year) doing an amazing storytime (complete with songs before and after) featuring The Boy & the Bindi. If you’re a teacher or a librarian, you’ll also be interested to know that there’s a teacher’s guide resource available for free there in PDF form. It’s developed by educators Robin Phillips and Meghan Park. It’s got stuff like learning outcomes, activities for before and after reading, and discussion questions.
Stay tuned for more picture book reviews on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! Next I’d like to read Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea. In the meantime, go forth and share The Boy & the Bindi with the kids (and, hey, adults!) in your life.