19 September 2010
When Rubina comes home from school one day, breathless from excitement about her first ever birthday party invitation, she is delivered a ghastly ultimatum by her mother, who has never even heard of birthday parties: she must take her little sister, Sana, with her or forfeit the party herself. The mother, dressed in the traditional garb of her home country, is lost in translation as Rubina tries to explain that that's not the way things are done. But the mother is adamant, and Rubina secures an invite for her bratty sister, despite the realization that her own social life is doomed. Rubina's one consolation for the day, a beautiful red lollipop received in her goodie bag, which she saves to enjoy later, is also lost to her when her sister eats it herself.
Soon Sana is old enough to receive her own birthday party invitation. Rubina watches a familiar scene unfold as Sana's initial joy is squashed when her mother informs her that she must take both Rubina and the youngest sister, Maryam, with her. Rubina wants nothing to do with this scenario, despite the mother's insistence that it is fair. Sana, who has clearly forgotten her own role in the previous party events, is beside herself and pleads that she simply cannot bring the youngest sister with her.
Rubina's intervention is graceful, generous, and born of a wisdom which comes from stigma. The mother may or may not have noticed the lack of further party invites for her eldest daughter, but they are fresh in Rubina's mind. Sana proves herself to be grateful in the end, and the strengthened bond with her sister is a beautiful way to finish the book. But for me it is simply silver lining, because the central lesson revolves around the behavior of the mother. You can call it a cultural difference, an angle which is certainly emphasized in the story. But truthfully, I think the problem is in the process of growing-up. As adults we forget about the things which are important to children, such as the desire to not stick out. Compared to our weighty concerns, what's the big deal to bring a little sister--a child--to a child's party? How often do we tell children that life's not fair, and then force adult concepts of "fair" on them (such as being told to share a lollipop with a sibling who has already taken the lollipop for herself.) Or maybe it's just me. Perhaps this book struck a chord because I know how often I have failed my daughter with my own lapses of memory. Perhaps Big Red Lollipop simply speaks to my guilty conscience, that of a mother who has fallen back on the annoying get-out clauses my mom used ("Because I said so!") rather than remember my own nine year old cares and concerns.
Before finishing, I must take a moment to comment on the illustrations of Sophie Blackall. As the illustrator of the Ivy and Bean books, I always associate her work with the mischievous, slightly subversive behavior of those two girls. Here she has used her talent for expressiveness to eloquently compliment the text. The exchange over the purloined lollipop is a masterpiece of scowls, indignation, and contempt for the plain, awful unfairness of it all. And the cover, with the striking visual of the dominant lollipop, conveys the import of that controversial sweet without revealing the magnitude of the life lesson learned inside the book.