Ah, birthday parties. Whether you lived through it yourself or via your own children (or both), most of us are familiar with the dynamic of birthday parties in elementary school. Who's coming and who's not, which of your friends are invited, what it feels like when you're included (elation!) and what it feels like when you're not (depression). For girls especially, this whole birthday party thing can take on a life of its own, and make or break you -- or so it seems.
In Big Red Lollipop, author Rukhsana Khan presents us with Rubina's dilemma: she's invited to her first-ever birthday party, but her mother insists she bring her little sister Sana along. Rubina protests, sure that her new friends won't understand, but Ami stands firm. Of course Rubina's friend says it's all right, but Sana doesn't know how to act at the party. Rubina's only consolation is the huge red lollipop that Sally's mom gives out as party favors. While Sana gobbles hers down right away, Rubina saves it for the next morning, dreaming all night about her sweet treat. But Sana manages to spoil that as well.
Rubina is so mad at Sana - about the lollipop, yes, but also for ruining Rubina's chances at being invited to more parties. Until Sana receives her own invitation to a party. . .
Lollipop is amazing on so many levels, and it is one of those rare titles that works for just about any child. In one sense, you have the sibling relationship: older sister plus pesky younger sister. The way Khan resolves the conflict is surprising, but completely perfect, and it speaks volumes about how we really should treat others. On another level, this is a story about fitting in: the cultural norms that Rubina's family is familiar with don't fit with the society they are living in. Rubina is caught between what the kids at school think is normal and what her mother wants her to do. And on yet another plane, this is a story about right and wrong - when doing what you want to do is not the best solution.
Wrap all that up in a multicultural package and you have a charming yet deep picture book. The illustrations by Sophie Blackall are beguiling in her signature fashion - colorful and energetic, simple and expressive, perfectly suited to Rukhsana Khan's story. I love the hidden depths that are hinted at in this one, something that the pictures really carry forth. There's a lot to think about here; this would be a perfect classroom pick as the possibilities for discussion are numerous.
Big Red Lollipop is the kind of book you need to read through more than once, for each time another aspect of the story reveals itself to you. Khan has given us a sensitive and thoughtful story that will make you laugh, and think, in equal measures. Don't miss this one!
Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Published by Viking
Sample: "I beg and plead, but Ami won't listen. I have no choice. I have to call. Sally says "All right." But it doesn't sound all right. I know she thinks I'm weird."
Bonus: check out this interview with Rukhsana Khan at Paper Tigers