Friday, March 15, 2013

Shiva’s Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Image from
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000

Parvati has been singled out as different and possibly dangerous by the villagers of Anandanagar in Nandipuram in southern India. Parvati was born on the first day of the terrible cyclone that took the lives of many and devastated all of Nandipuram. The villagers blame her for this horrible event and to make it worse Parvati has extraordinary abilities that are seen as unnatural by those in her community. Animals gravitate toward her, from the fish in the river to the birds in the sky, and when she lights even the smallest candle beautiful music ripples through the air. But most of all, Parvati is filled with an innate knowledge of music and dance. After the cyclone her family, along with all the other villagers, struggle to survive, but when Parvati is twelve she is given the opportunity to give her beloved mother and brothers a better life. The Guru Pazhayanur Muthu Kumara Pillai notices Parvati’s talent for dance and invites her to study Indian classical dance. However, the program requires complete dedication to the study of dance, music, meditation, and spirituality. Parvati is torn between her love for her family and the feeling that it is her dharma, her fate, to dedicate her life to dance.

This coming of age story brings southern India to life with wonderful descriptions that incorporate all five senses. Written in third person, this story reads like a contemporary folktale because of Parvati’s mysterious gifts. Although the young dancer’s life is shaped by external incidents, the focus is on her internal struggle to understand the world, her talents, and her dharma. Staples incorporates Tamil, Hindi, and Sanskrit words (written phonetically) into the text. Although some words are contextually defined, all terms can be found in the glossary and pronunciation guide included at the back of the book. This book also includes an honest and age appropriate description of Parvati’s shock when she experiences her first menstrual cycle.

*Learn more about bharata natyam, the sacred Hindu classical dance that Parvati studies in the book:
Note: These websites have a lot of information, so I suggest reading them and then sharing the information with young readers, as they can be a bit overwhelming

*Read about the research and inspiration behind this book in this interview with Suzanne Fisher Staples.

*Although the world of the book is realistic and contemporary, there are elements that create a magical, folktale-like atmosphere. Follow up by reading Indian and Hindu tales and discuss themes, motifs, or animals that also appear in Staples' book:
The Elephant-Headed God and Other Hindu Tales by Debjani Chatterjee, Illustrated by Margaret Jones
Indian Tales: A Barefoot Collection by Shenaaz Nanji, Illustrated by Christopher Corr
Tales from India: Stories of Creation and the Cosmos by Jamila Gavin, Illustrated by Amanda Hall

*Parvati’s father was a mahout, a driver and keeper of elephants. Learn more about how elephants are trained and kept in southern India in this non-fiction book:
Balarama: A Royal Elephant by Ted and Betsy Lewin

Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun
Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman 
Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan

*Other books by Suzanne Fisher Staples:

Age 11+ / Grade 6+


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