NADIA’S HANDS by Karen English. Boyds Mill Press, 1999. Picturebook for ages 4-8. Hardcover, 32 pages. $15.95.
Nadia’s Hands is a contemporary story with a realistic theme. The protagonist is a Pakistani-American girl chosen to be a flower girl for Auntie Laila’s wedding. Nadia doesn’t feel honored by the privilege. Auntie Laila informs her that Auntie Amina will prepare her hands with mehndi. Nadia smiles stiffly, worrying about going to school with orange hands. One auntie brings the silky, peach-colored shalwar kameez Nadia will wear for the wedding. Another brings her tiny gold earrings. Yet another comes to curl her hair. Finally Auntie Amina arrives and prepares the mehndi. Nadia has to sit still while her aunt decorates her hand. When Auntie Amina is done, she pulls out a small gold ring for her. She tells Nadia to learn to have sabr, patience, while she is waiting for the mehndi to dry. The girl feels that her hands, with deep orange flowers and swirls and stars, don’t look like they belong to her.
Even when Nadia walks down the aisle as the flower girl she worries about how her hands will look when she goes to school. The writer has slowed and magnified the moment to good effect. We are aware of the dynamics between the flower girl and the wedding guests. We do not know how the bride or the bridegroom, whom we never see or read about, feel. It is the child’s point of view with her immediate concern that we are privy to. English shifts gears a little later, discarding the slow-motion play and the earlier medium pacing, and springs the resolution a little too quick.
Nadia’s thoughts, though not always fully developed or expanded, are nicely integrated into the narrative. Sometimes a thought is conveyed effectively in a few words, as for example, when she feels slightly apprehensive receiving advice from her cousins. “So many things to remember.” English’s prose is not fancy or excessive, but it carries the story forward. She doesn’t shy away from manipulating language to create an effect. She uses the word “sat” five times in one paragraph and stresses the “tick, tick, tick” of the kitchen clock to convey how slowly time moves for Nadia.
The illustrator, Jonathan Weiner, is the winner of the Herman Lambert Award for illustration. His pictures match the tone of the story. They are full-length and alternate with the pages of prose. They are done in oil pastel but Weiner strives for, and achieves, the effect of crayon-colored pictures. He has deliberately not paid much attention to details. He mainly focuses on Nadia and her hands. But in one important scene, he doesn’t give the pictorial clue that should accompany the text. When we are told Nadia gazes at the amber ring, we only see the hennaed hand without it. Fortunately, the amber ring features prominently in two subsequent close-ups.
Nadia’s Hands fails to take advantage of the festive atmosphere prevalent in a South Asian-American bride’s home. The illustrations too do not show any signs of an impending celebration other than that of the mehndi. Auntie Laila wears jewelry suitable for a bride, but her clothes are rather subdued. One wishes the colors of green, red, and gold one associates with Muslim celebrations would splash more extravagantly across the pages. However, the henna motifs that recur at the top and bottom on the pages of prose are a nice visual touch.
The writer dedicates the book to seven people, including a Nadia. The reader wonders whether the mentioned Nadia was an inspiration for the protagonist. Was there a real-life incident that sparked the story? In any event, it is quite natural for a bridesmaid to have her own concerns on the wedding day. Readers will appreciate Nadia’s predicament, which in different forms and degrees is shared by many children. —Tara Menon