Book review: *Bamboo People* by Mitali Perkins

  • Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
  • Reading level: Young Adult
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Charlesbridge Publishing; New edition (July 1, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1580893282
  • Back-of-the-book blurb: Chiko isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family’s home and bamboo fields.

    Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion as each boy is changed by unlikely friendships formed under extreme circumstances.

    This coming-of-age novel  takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Narrated by two fifteen-year-old boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma, Bamboo People explores the nature of violence, power, and prejudice.

    She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Bamboo People takes place in a setting that forces boys to grow too soon into men.  Throughout the novel, author Mitali Perkins shows the sharp contrasts, almost dichotomies, of present-day Burma.  Even the landscape doesn’t escape this shift, as 15-year-old Chiko describes what could be beautiful scenery, using the word “blood” to foreshadow the way his world is changing (p. 31):

    We’re already on the outskirts of the city and heading north, where rice paddies and coconut trees line the narrow, flat highway.  Women are harvesting rice, their bodies bent, their bamboo hats shaped like upside-down bowls.  Thin, straight streams sparkle like wires, dividing the wet fields into squares.  The last rays of the sun redden, spilling into the water like blood.

    Chiko has seen changes in his country: his father has been arrested, he and his mother hide the foreign books in their home, whisper so as not to be overheard when in public, and avoid calling attention to themselves.  Chiko repeats a mantra to help him through difficult times (p. 79): One day at a time.  Mind your business.  Stay out of trouble.

    As the story moves along, Chiko adds a prayer to his chant: Give me courage. Chiko reevaluates his goals, weighing the possibility of helping someone else, instead of only looking out for himself.  There is a great lesson subtly taught in these pages, and one that is shown again in the section narrated by Tu Reh, the 16-year-old Karenni refugee.

    Tu Reh, too, is faced with a choice – does he see one Burmese person as an indidual, or does he see him only as part of the larger politically-driven group who has hurt his family and destroyed their home?  Tu Reh and Chiko are both given the opportunity to practice The Golden Rule, and model just treatment of others.  Whether each chooses to follow it and treat others as they would desire to be treated (not necessarily as they have been treated), is a test of character under extreme circumstances.

    Mitali Perkins brings the reader into Burma, showing us not only the beautiful natural settings and the characters of various ethnic groups, but also the oppression in the city, the jungle, and the camps.  Even within the government-backed “training centers” for soldiers, there is a hierarchy of cruelty, with higher-ups bullying the new recruits.  There are references to maiming and attempts at killing people on the opposite side of the conflict; hidden mines litter the jungle.  The violence is a necessary part of the story, and though it is not overly graphic, it did inspire a “It seems so real” comment from my 12-year-old-son, a mature and sensitive reader.  What an awesome opportunity for me to talk with him about justice, tying the conversation not only to the Burmese conflict, but also to examples closer to home.

    I’m pleased to have the opportunity to read and review Bamboo People, and recommend it to mature Young Adult (and not-so-young adult) readers.  Despite the threat of violence and the anger of the conflict, Chiko and Tu Reh are each shown love and support by their own families; the opportunity to practice the Golden Rule begins at home.

    Mitali Perkins’ companion website,, offers additional resources for individuals, families, or school groups reading the book.  She discusses the history of Burma, her own experience visiting refugee camps on the Thai border, and lists questions to discuss within a group or ponder on your own.

    13 comments to Book review: *Bamboo People* by Mitali Perkins

    • I’m a fan of Perkins after hearing her speak at BEA and I haven’t read any of her books yet. I do hope to read this one soon, so I’m glad to see it’s good.

    • I was going to say pretty much exactly what Kathy said!

    • Amy

      Really glad to see that you enjoyed this as well. Great review!

    • I have been seeing this book all over the place since BEA and really want to take the time to read it. It sounds really complex and interesting. Glad you liked it!

    • This sounds like a very powerful read for young people. I’m glad that you enjoyed this one and highly recommend it. I heard a lot of buzz about it at BEA this year, and glad to see it lives up to that buzz.

    • Beth Hoffman

      Not long ago I head about this book (favorably), and I’m glad to see that you enjoyed it. Great review, Dawn.

    • Kathy – I’ve read one other of Mitali’s books, MONSOON SUMMER. Both novels involve impressively mature teens and difficult moral questions. My older son has also enjoyed reading them, and it’s led to ongoing conversations between us.

      Beth F – well, there you go! I thought her “windows and mirrors” presentation at BEA was outstanding.

      Amy – Have you read it already? I’ll pop over to your blog to read your thoughts …

      zibilee – yes! and your kids are at an age and maturity level to make this a perfect fit.

      Serena – oh, it really does live up to expectations! It’s not preachy, but definitely makes a statement. All the supplemental information on the website must be a great help to teachers/homeschoolers (and ‘just plain moms’ like me!)

      Beth – Is it on your to-read list? Even though it’s marketed as a Young Adult book, it’s very accessible/enjoyable … and informative … for the rest of us :)

    • She sounded like an amazing speaker at BEA, and it seemed like you all came back excited to read this book. I’m glad to lived up to the expectation. Great review Dawn!

    • There is another (adult) book out dealing with the horrors in Burma now and it has really opened my eyes to a country that I never really hear anything about … but it feels like I should be hearing about it more.

    • Can’t wait to read this one!!! Plus I get to meet Mitali (again) at the Lititz Kidlit Festival in September.

    • Guess I wasn’t paying attention at BEA. I wasn’t aware of this book until your review, but it sounds really good.

    • Sandy – I think you and your kids would all enjoy this. Not sure if it’s available on audio, but you could take turns reading, then discuss.

      Jenners – ooh! What is the book you’ve read recently? BAMBOO PEOPLE definitely reminded me of the situation (and the website is full of additional info)

      Julie – KidlitFest sounds like so much fun! Is it one or two days?

      Anna – You were paying attention to what The Girl wanted/needed. We can’t do it all (highly recommend the book to you, then you can decide if The Girl should wait a year or two to read it)

    • Maggie @ Primary Source

      Primary Source (a global education nonprofit) will facilitate a FREE worldwide book discussion, or “Global Read,” of Bamboo People, featuring an online discussion forum followed by a “live” web-based session. We are very excited to announce that Mitali Perkins will be joining us for the live chat!