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Books in Brief: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani; Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani; Dial Books for Young Readers, 258 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.

This extraordinary, poignant, coming-of-age novel, of a 12-year-old girl forced to flee her childhood home during the bloody partition of India in 1947, is written as a diary and based on the experience of the author's father and his family. Nisha's voice, in the diary format, gives a compelling immediacy, through a child's eyes, of the frightening upheaval and shocking upset of neighbor turned against neighbor, of familiar things gone forever, of sudden, bloody violence as Muslims moved to newly formed Pakistan and Hindus to the new India in the largest migration in human history.

Nisha and her twin brother, Amil, are the children of a mixed marriage – a Muslim mother who died when they were born, and a Hindu father, a doctor at the local hospital. Thus the family already has experienced family divisions over the religious difference, giving them a larger perspective on the turmoil to come. (Nisha's father quotes Gandhi: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.") The twins live in a pleasant home in Mirpor Khas with their father, their grandmother, and their Muslim cook, Kazi. As the threat of violence against Hindus escalates, the family packs only what they can carry to flee on foot to a relative's house many miles away on their journey to their new home in Jodphur across the Pakistan border in India.

Through Nisha's voice, the reader vividly experiences the physical trauma of the journey, the dust, the thirst, the hunger, the weariness, the distrust of other strangers making the same journey, the life-giving thrill of finding a mango, or water from an unexpected rain shower. Hiranandani beautifully depicts the traumatic experience, of life stripped to its essentials and Nisha's growing awareness of her family's love for each other. This is a fascinating, deeply personal look at a historical event most young readers are not familiar with but its truths about the refugee experience, and the power of love to create a new home in a strange place, resonate today.

Baby Monkey, Private Eye, story by Brian Selznick and David Serlin, pictures by Brian Selznick; Scholastic Press, 186 pages ($16.99) 
The hugely talented Brian Selznick, creator of "Wonderstruck" and "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," reinvents children's books yet again with this irresistible, genre-defying entertainment that serves as picture book-graphic novel-beginning reader. Who is Baby Monkey, you might ask? In giant type, after a hilarious drawing of a tiny baby monkey holding a giant magnifying glass, we learn: "He is a baby. He is a monkey. He has a job." There are five chapters for five cases. Children will delight at the repetition in each chapter of baby monkey getting ready for work on a case, an elaborate routine involving writing notes (here we have a marvelous drawing of tiny baby monkey at a huge desk gripping a very large pencil), eating a snack and finally putting on his pants, which involves hilarious acrobatics. In a jab at detective mysteries everywhere, the actual detective work is dispatched with very quickly, a hilarious afterthought involving a trail of footprints leading directly to the culprit. How perfect that the final mystery reunites baby monkey with his mama. A key at the end spells out the painstaking attention Selznick took in creating the themed office decor in the detailed double-page illustrations at the start of each case: the opera singer looking for her missing jewels features a portrait of Maria Callas and a poster of Marx Brothers film "A Night at the Opera" for instance and Baby Monkey reading a book about famous crimes involving stolen jewels. Selznick's trademark illustrations, all done in pencil, are a wonder. This book is marvelous, stupendous, one of a kind. Children will love it, and parents will, too.
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