Book Review: I Am Kavi by Thushanthi Ponweera
Caught between two worlds—a poverty-stricken village and a fancy big-city school—a young Sri Lankan girl must decide who she really is and where she really belongs.
1998, Colombo. The Sri Lankan Civil War is raging, but everyday life must go on. At Kavi’s school, her friends talk about the weekly Top 40, the Backstreet Boys, Shahrukh Khan, Leo & Kate… and who died—or didn’t—in the latest bombing. But Kavi is afraid of something even scarier than war. She fears that if her friends discover her secret—that she is not who she is pretending to be—they’ll stop talking to her.
I want to be friends with these / happy, / fearless, / girls / who look like they / belong.
So I could also be / happy, / fearless, / and maybe even / belong.
Kavi’s scholarship to her elite new school was supposed to be everything she ever wanted, but as she tries to find some semblance of normalcy in a country on fire, nothing is going according to plan. In an effort to fit in with her wealthy, glittering, and self-assured new classmates, Kavi begins telling lies, trading her old life—where she’s a poor girl whose mother has chosen a new husband over her daughter—for a new one, where she’s rich, loved, and wanted. But how long can you pretend to be someone else?
This dazzling novel-in-verse comes from an astonishing new talent who lived through the civil war herself. Perfect for fans of Jamine Warga, Supriya Kelkar, and Rajani LaRocca, I Am Kavi centers a powerful South Asian voice, and stars an unforgettable heroine each and every one of us can relate to.
I have read so few books set in Sri Lanka, and maybe no books set during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Those facts, combined with the fact that this is a novel in verse (something I am drawn to in part because I can read it so quickly), made me pull it out of Mount TBR. I read it in one sitting. I wanted to send a hug through the book to Kavi, who is just trying so hard to adjust to her new home and school while also trying to figure out friendship. I have said (and probably written in) a million times: Not for all the money in the world would I relive parenting my child through 5th/6th grade. There is SO MUCH going on, socially and hormonally and with so many transitions. Throw in having to live apart from your parents and a civil war, and, well, it’s a lot. But Kavi is glad to have made friends with the popular girls, even though she likely keeps their friendship by lying about her family’s wealth and status.
She’s nursing a lot of hurt feelings about how she feels her mother moved on so quickly from her father’s death. She feels abandoned, sent away, and replaced by her new stepfather and soon-to-be-born sibling. So if her friends ask her to make a bad choice to help them out, sure, Kavi is uncomfortable, but it will make her friends happy. Except friends don’t ask you to make choices like that. And friends certainly don’t throw you under the bus when you all get in trouble.
Like all of us when we make mistakes, Kavi grapples with feeling just absolutely horrible and ashamed. She wants to punish herself, to run away from the situation rather than face judgement. And, like hopefully many of us, she also has to learn that we can forgive ourselves for our mistakes, that we can move on. A bad choice doesn’t make you a bad person. And maybe, while she works to see more clearly what she needs to do, she will see more clearly the love around her and where she fits in her families, both new and old. Kavi learns the reassuring lesson that others will still love you, even if you make some missteps. A good reminder for the audience of this book who are likely being faced with challenges that will feel relatable to Kavi’s, even in small ways. A powerful and immensely readable look at a time period and place not often represented in books for children.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 09/19/2023
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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