Yasmin’s Hammer by Ann Malaspina

Hooray for a brand new picture book set in Bangladesh!

How many others can you think of? I daresay, this is the first one I’ve encountered, which is why I’m extra pleased Yasmin’s Hammer by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Doug Chayka (Lee & Low, 2010), was released earlier this month!

Ever since I read Mitali Perkins’s luminous, award-winning chapter book, Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge, 2007), I’ve been wanting to learn more about this part of the world. I was quite taken with Naima, a talented alpana artist who finds a creative way to help alleviate financial problems for her impoverished family.

Like Naima, Yasmin is a strong female character who seeks to challenge the status quo. Her family has moved to Dhaka to begin a new life after their modest riverside home is destroyed by a cyclone. Walking many miles to the city, they carry baskets containing their few earthly possessions and all their dreams.

Busy, noisy Dhaka is so different from their quiet rural village, but there are jobs and new opportunities to explore. The entire family must work to keep food on the table — Abba pedals customers around in a rented rickshaw, Amma works in rich people’s homes, and Yasmin and her younger sister Mita break bricks all day long. As they chip, crack, crush, and smash those red bricks into bits that will be used to construct roads and high-rise buildings, Yasmin dreams of going to school, for she knows intuitively that if she could read, she could “be a shopkeeper or maybe a teacher . . . a doctor or even the governor . . . anything at all.”

Though both parents are aware of Yasmin’s longing for school, they remind her how crucial her income is. Amma says, “the money you earn will help Abba buy supplies to fix our leaky roof and keep us dry.” But determined Yasmin comes up with a plan. Though her daily quota of brick breaking makes her shoulders ache and all the dust she inhales makes her cough, she begins to “pound harder, faster” to earn extra money.

Day by day, her little pile of taka coins grows, until she’s able to purchase her first book, which she and her family examine together by candlelight. They enjoy all the pictures, but none of them can read any of the words. It is then Abba decides Yasmin and Mita must go to school — not next year, but very soon.

Yasmin’s Hammer handles the difficult subject of hardship and poverty with just the right tenor of realism and sensitivity. Though this is a picture book for older readers, the vibrantly illustrated format provides a good introduction to Bangladeshi culture for younger children as well. The shared struggle of this close family unit is moving and inspiring, and Yasmin’s earnest desire for an education will no doubt renew the reader’s appreciation for many of the basic things he/she takes for granted.

Malaspina’s vivid, detail-laden free verse narrative flows effortlessly, and in Yasmin, she’s created a likeable, sympathetic character who offers hope for the future and exemplifies the changing roles of females in Bangladeshi society.

Chayka’s full bleed oil paintings, rendered in earthy, burnished browns, rusts, and oranges with lush green, blue and yellow accents, perfectly complement the text. Effective use of shading and perspective establish a deeper emotional context, allowing for shifting moods and contrast between Yasmin’s austere home life and the bustling energy of city streets.

I love Chayka’s full-bodied palette, especially when thought of in terms of cinnamon, cardamon, tumeric, ginger, curry, saffron and chili — warm colors that evoke a basic humanity. The multiple shades of terra cotta create a beautiful continuity, tying together the strands of Yasmin’s life: desolate village and water buffalo, the inside of the rickshaw, the clay pots and buildings in the marketplace, the dusty red brickyard, her mother’s shawl, the color of the shelves in the bookstore, the color of one of the school buildings at the end of the story.

A BBC report about two brick workers inspired Malaspina to write this illuminating story about child labor and living conditions in Bangladesh. Back matter includes an Afterword offering more details and a map of this South Asian country, along with a Glossary and Pronunciation Guide, Suggestions for Further Reading, and a list of organizations supporting efforts to better the lives of children in Bangladesh and other parts of the world. A good title for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, and a much needed resource for school and home libraries. Bravo!

*Cool universal themes: making your dreams come true, goal setting, overcoming obstacles, family ties, resourcefulness, importance of education, female empowerment.

YASMIN’S HAMMER by Ann Malaspina
illustrated by Doug Chayka
published by Lee & Low, May 2010
Picture book for ages 9-12, 40 pp.
Review copy provided by publisher.


♥ For more reviews, a Booktalk with the author and illustrator, and a peek into the book, check out the publisher’s website.

♥ Doug Chayka has posted more spreads from Yasmin’s Hammer at his blog.

♥ Visit Ann Malaspina’s official website.

Yasmin and Mita eat Amma’s tasty khichuri (rice and lentils) for lunch. Ann shares a recipe here.

*Spreads posted by permission, text copyright © 2010 Ann Malaspina, illustrations © 2010 Doug Chayka, published by Lee & Low. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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