Review: The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel

Two posts in a month! Yeah, I’m kinda freaked out too, but I’m a bit overdue with my review of Radhika R. Dhariwal’s The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel, aimed at middle grade readers, is a fun adventure, to be sure. It took me a few chapters to get into the world, but once I did, I enjoyed the myriad layers to the story. Our hero, Squirrel, is the last slave in the kingdom of Bimmau, a land occupied by animals who talk and wear fancy clothes, but also stick together by species and rarely cross those bounds. At  a somewhat scandalous wedding between a cat and a dog (this, I admit was hard for me to wrap my head around at first), Squirrel sips a strange drink and hears his deceased mother’s voice whispering a puzzle to him.

The plot is a straight up quest. Squirrel must work through a series of clues that will lead him to a special key that has the potential to free him from slavery and to reveal his true name. Squirrel and a rag-tag group of adventurers must stay one step ahead of enemy forces who also want the key, because although it has the power to free slaves, the key may also be used to enslave others. Of great fun for me, and my children who also read the book, was ability to play along with the puzzles. There are riddles to answer and codes to break, making this a good step up for kids who enjoy the Geronimo Stilton books, but are ready for a new challenge.

I wish I had done this as a read aloud with my kids, rather than them reading the book independently. My daughter didn’t like the occasional swear word (“damn” if you’re wondering), and some subtle flirting confused my son, but would have kept an adult’s attention while reading.

I suspect a lot of the book’s nuances were lost on them. Part way through, I had an epiphany – the various animal species functioned like a divided human society. Some of the characters were open-minded enough to see past the physical difference and appreciate what similarities existed even when the differences seemed insurmountable. The themes of home, family, identity, and nourishment recur in different places.

I really wish publisher Simon & Schuster had included a reading guide or discussion questions, because as parents, sometimes our brains hurt by bedtime and we need a little help, so here’s a few thoughts from me. If reading aloud, the parent (and child if they read aloud too) could stop and ask questions about whether Squirrel and Des are good guests and if bees or mice are better hosts and why. There are a number of places where the adult could ask a child why a character behaves they way they do and raise issues of fairness. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is a terrific book for raising issues around empathy but also hierarchical societies. Because the animals bear resemblance to humans – and not just for the fine footwear – sharing this story can be a way to ease into some uncomfortable conversations about privilege, whether economic, social, or racial.

But if that’s too esoteric, then focus on quest and puzzles.  I give this a 5/5 for a read aloud story, and a 4/5 for independent reading.

Oh – and the disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

And another oh – the illustrations by Audrey Benjaminsen are charming and add character to the story.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is available from these and other retailers

Amazon   

Barnes&Noble

Simon&Schuster

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I am not who I thought

Indigenous Peoples Day seems as good a day as any for this particular post.

Ask me who are you? Where does your family come from?

Me answering at age 7: “I’m a real mutt. I’m British, and German, and Cherokee, and Scottish, and Irish and just all mixed up!” Yeah – I was sort of an ignorant dope back then. But I learned a bit. Maybe.

Me answering at say age 27: “My family is primarily from Great Britain – especially Wales but also Scotland and Scots-Irish, with some German and Sioux mixed in for good measure.”  Somewhere between ages 7 and 27, I learned my family history did not include the Trail of Tears, but rather our mysterious ancestor, for whom we have only a name, was part of the Plains people.

Me at age (lets just blur this out because I like denial) “Let’s take a DNA test and find out for sure. That would be cool.”

So I did. After seeing all those commercials of people  discovering their heritage, taking fun vacations, or buying new hats, or learning new dance moves, I wanted to know what adventures could be found in my spit. This seemed particularly important, after a third or fourth or some cousin did one that had a surprising result and led my family to question what we had been told about one of our forebears.

My results are in. Ancestry will not invite me to make a commercial. I am boring. My ethnicity is overwhelmingly Great British. My German shows up as a “low confidence region” of Western Europe and clocks in at 2%.  My “Native American” DNA heritage clocks in as zero, which is the same percent as European Jewish, Russian, Middle East, African, Chinese, and pretty much everything else.

In the commercials, people are delighted to discover new backgrounds. I did find one. The test came back a high confidence of an 8% heritage from Italy/Greece. One of those Roman soldiers must have gotten bored whilst invading England in the first century. Those kinds of trysts happened, so it’s not much of a surprise. Unlike the commercial-people, my DNA test shut doors of possibility.

2017 is the first year that Indigenous Peoples Day is not part of my personal genetic heritage. Most years, I had given thought to that bit of my past and wished I knew more about the indigenous part of my heritage. I wondered where “my people” had come from, what sort of housing they slept in, and what sort of beadwork the matriarch created. I bemoaned not knowing that part of myself and had wondered if I would have a richer, fuller life if I could connect with the indigenous part of my heritage. As it turns out, there is nothing to know – only a hollow where my curiosity once lay.

I’m embarrassed for the times I have misrepresented myself out of ignorance, and I hope my transgressions will be forgiven. I can only hope that what was once empathy stemming from vague sense of being part of the indigenous story will transfer in empathy for fellow human beings who have a rich heritage that all Americans should acknowledge and respect.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should probably look up a good recipe for bubble and squeak, whatever that is.