Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind by Jennifer J. Stewart
Look past the cheesy cover and pop-culture title … and what you’ll find within is a heartfelt story of one American family’s life-changing experiences in a remote Himalayan village in Nepal. Author Jennifer J. Stewart promises “seriously funny books for children,” and here she definitely delivers both serious and funny.
When 12-year-old Annie’s parents announce they’re headed to Nepal where her father will lead a medical service team, she’s thrilled about missing school for two months, but not so sure about what to expect. The final flight to their destination (on a plane that belongs more in a museum than actually in the air) is “stomach-wrenching,” the long steep trek “torture,” she’s stuck sharing a tent with her 5-year-old sister Chelsea, she’s not sure if she’s brought enough M&Ms to last, and people keep offering sympathy to her parents for having two daughters instead of any sons. “Welcome to my nightmare,” she intones.
Then Annie meets Nirmala, a local girl of 10 who quickly becomes a helpful fixture in the busy, makeshift clinic. With her widowed mother unable to afford her school fees, Nirmala appears daily. She makes herself indispensable to the adults; unlike the official translators who only repeat what the doctors might want to hear, Nirmala speaks the truth with her limited English. When she’s not ‘working,’ she’s a perfect companion for Annie and Chelsea, even when their adventures go rather awry. Nirmala’s openness is both inviting and poignant, and Annie begins to realize surprising new truths about her own self.
The two months pass all too quickly, and more and more, Annie can hardly bear to imagine her days without Nirmala – “it felt like being chopped in half.” So Annie blurts out an outrageous plan … that just might prove to be the best idea for all.
Stewart’s light, often humorous style never lectures; she’s also perceptively sensitive when laughter is not appropriate. Mixed in with the goofy, giddy fun are reminders of life’s not-so-happy realities – a father’s too-early death, incurable diseases, gender inequity, and uncertain futures – presented with just enough detail to encourage younger readers to think beyond their comfort zone …
Readers: Middle Grade