Twelve-year-old Aru Shah has the tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at her school. Some of her classmates arrive to school in fancy cars and travel to exotic locales during holiday breaks while Aru is stuck at home at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture while her curator/historian mother returns from yet another far-away archeological trip.
But all lies as consequences, as Aru learns when three of her classmates arrive on her doorstep to catch her in a lie. They don’t believe Aru’s claim that one of the museum’s artifacts, the Lamp of Bharata is cursed. They dare her to prove her claim (all in front of a smartphone camera, no less, figuring her fib will provide extra humiliation when shared with the rest of their peers). Aru is wary of the curse, but what harm would a quick light do? Just a quick light and then she’d never lie again.
But of course this action has consequences too. The lighting of the lamp frees the Sleeper, an ancient demon whose duty is to awaken the God of Destruction and bring forth the End of Time. With her classmates, mother, and others now frozen in time, Aru must find the five reincarnations of the legendary Pandava brothers and journey into mythical worlds in order to stop the destruction of her own. Oh. And she has to do it all the while dressed in her favorite Spider-Man pajamas.
Before I dive into my thoughts about this book, I do want to express how much I love what Rick Riordan is doing with this imprint. Here’s an author who had made their name and fortune off of using other cultures for his literary worlds (hey, I love Riordan’s worlds, but that doesn’t erase this fact). He could have just as easily with more white male authors. Instead, he’s using his name to bolster writers of color telling their own stories. I hope this is something that goes beyond the three projects that have been announced (including Aru) thus far. Even with that said, I almost didn’t give this one a try. I know, I know! I’m not a huge fan of Chokshi’s YA fiction and sometimes not every author is going to work for you. However, I’m glad I did pick this up, because Aru Shah and the End of Time is a delightful treasure that ought to be put on everyone’s middle grade reading list immediately.
If you’re familiar with Riordan’s work, you’ll probably notice a similar vibe while reading this and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. However, that doesn’t mean Aru Shah is simply Percy Jackson with a female protagonist that swaps out Greek mythology for Hindu mythology. That’s not it at all. Chokshi invokes all the spirit and delight present in those stories while spinning a new yarn that feels distinctly hers. You’ll feel Aru’s loneliness in the bottom of your heart, laugh with the quips, quiver at some of the more frightening bits (and, yes, as an adult reader it had plenty of those), and your pulse will race at the climax. This is a book that’s as much about being your true self and nurturing important relationships as it is accepting and appreciating other cultures that may not be your own. Charming from start to finish – and you’ll never want it to finish! Honestly, I wish I had a hero like Aru Shah (and Mini!) when I was younger. How great for younger readers these days who get to have and cherish her.
When Beatrice Archer learns that her father has taken a job as the head of the history department at the American Academy in Rome, she’s not entirely thrilled with the idea. She may love history like her father, but moving thousands of miles away to a new country? Well, it’s daunting.
Shortly after arriving, however, Beatrice takes to the streets, immersing herself in her new surroundings and meeting new faces along the way. She intends to make the best out of her move. During her traversing, she learns of an old neighborhood legend involving the beautiful turtle fountain outside her window. It’s through her window that Beatrice sees a shadowy figure in the square, stealing the fountain’s turtle sculptures. However, no one believes Beatrice’s nighttime story, especially as all of the turtles remain on the fountain accounted for. Even her father doubts her. Her new friend Marco does, though, and the two of them set off to unravel a centuries old mystery in a city full of art and history.
There’s nothing like a cute destination middle grade mystery and Midnight in the Piazza is certainly that. This is a story that pulls you in with full force and makes you feel as if you are walking the streets of Rome right along with Beatrice. It helps that the author herself lives in Rome and it’s clear from the level of detail and knowledge that permeates every page. The setting itself was probably my favorite thing. Last year I had to cancel a trip to Rome, so reading this dredged up all of those feelings of wistful wanderlust – a bit tinged with sadness, sure, but the magic that Parks invokes in her setting is contagious. Beatrice is also quite memorable herself and a force. She’s a very no-nonsense, go-getter type of pre-teen heroine who has little qualms about immediately roaming her new home despite the language barrier. She has her vulnerabilities too, but it doesn’t take long to carve out a place for herself. As a child, I might not have been able to relate to her on a personal level if I had read this book way back when, but she’s a character I may have looked up to. She’s adorable and fun and I would not be averse to reading further tales of her adventures as she and Marco traverse around Rome solving various mysteries.
Though, that does leave me with one issue I did have with this book: parental accountability. I get that Beatrice’s father is the absent-minded professor type and children’s fiction is full of absent or neglectful parents. But the nonchalance of her father just letting her go around this new place on her own (though, granted, some of Beatrice’s adventures took place without his knowledge) feels a little unbelievable. I get that a good chunk of this story needed to happen without him there. However, there’s only so much I can hand-wave with a casual, “Well, it’s fiction!” This is unfortunately what happens when you’re an adult reading a book intended for younger readers. Eventually you start empathizing with the grown-ups and wondering where they are!
All in all, it’s a book I would recommend to anyone looking for a middle grade read that feels like a modern Nancy Drew. Or, really, anyone that loves history and art, as it is chockfull of both of those things! Parks’ debut is cute and fun and while I did have a few misgivings, it’s a book I would give to the young mystery aficionado who loves to solve puzzles.