Front Street, 2004.
Meet Kate and Neema, two teens procrastinating over an exasperating writing assignment entitled, “Who Are You?” They are the protagonists of Kalpana’s Dream, a story of intergenerational relationships and thread-like connections by the award-winning Australian author Judith Clarke. Clarke is best known for her Al Capsella novels, one of which – The Heroic Life of Al Capsella – was included in the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list in 1990. Kalpana’s Dream won the 2005 Boston-Globe Horn Book Honor Award for fiction.
The experiences of the Australian teens are universal as they repeat delicious rumors about their teachers’ extra-curricular, and possibly supernatural, activities. Over a span of six weeks, a mutual crush develops between Neema and Gull Oliver, a sensitively drawn skaterat dubbed “the flying boy” by Kalpana, Neema’s great-grandmother, visiting from India. Herein lies one of the sweetest connections spun by the author; one between a boy and a girl who shared an experience as small children and who now reconnect as adolescents.
Beautiful imagery enhances the elements of magic realism in the story. Kalpana’s billowing white sari fluttering as she steps one sneakered foot onto Gull’s skateboard before zooming off brings the reader back full circle to the novel’s title. Kalpana has had a recurring dream of flying which is realized when she attempts skateboarding!
This book is about the power of stories and writing them down. The “jock,” the “fat girl,” the “immigrant child” – they are all pushed, by their teacher’s assignment, to uncover their own essence, or “what makes a cake a cake.” Great-grandmother Kalpana’s life stories are sprinkled throughout the novel, giving the reader a flavor for the life of a woman living in twentieth century India. Clarke provides enough humor along the journey and touches on several topics of teen angst, which serve to keep adolescents turning the pages. The connections between characters are slowly peeled back by the omniscient narrator, who gives us a bird’s eye view of each person’s experiences and lends voice to their interior monologues. Particularly well-rendered are the thoughts of Kalpana and Neema as they attempt to exchange a good night: “‘Soja beti,’ says Kalpana which means in Hindi, ‘Sleep well, my child.’ ‘Was that good night?’ wondered Neema…or ‘Go away, you heartless girl!’”
The book could benefit from a more captivating cover to attract reluctant readers, but the story captures teenage awkwardness and intergenerational misunderstanding with a knowing voice. Adolescent readers will be satisfied with this dreamy assignment.
Kristen O. Daniel