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Banu the Builder
by Mathangi Subramanian

Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Middle Grade Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

See her?

That one, there. The one who’s always looking up up up at the tops of things? Falls in every crack in the sidewalk? Always forgetting that she’s on the ground?

That’s Banu. Banu, who is not like the rest of us.

For a long time, we thought Banu was slow. Not slow in the feet. Slow in the head. We’re not even sure how she’s still in class with us, she’s failed so many subjects so many times in so many ways.

The rest of us, we figured everything out pretty fast. The answer to school is simple: mug[1]. Mug, mug, and then mug some more.

Poor Banu. She was never good at mugging. Ask her to add two plus two, and she’ll cower like you’re waving a lathi. As for the ABCs, she never got past B. We’re not even sure if she can write the second half of her own name.

Some of us think it’s because of her afterschool activities. And I don’t mean debate club or field hockey or Model UN – those aren’t for kids like us, or for Banu. After school, Banu goes to construction sites.

Now let me tell you something. You know the only thing worse than a slum like ours?

Construction sites.

There’re always a couple of kids at our school who follow their parents from site to site. You can tell as soon as you speak to them: chopped up hair, hollow eyes, words thick like ragi mudde. They never stick around for long–most don’t even buy school uniforms. They just show up every day in the same outfits until the pants get too short or the blouse gets too tight. Start wearing whatever their older sister or brother was wearing the week before.

Not that we mind having them around. We can always roll our eyes at each other over their heads, raise our eyebrows at their bare feet and skinny elbows.

After all, if you can’t be better than somebody else, what’s the point?

At first we think Banu is having an affair. Not that Banu has ever cared about anything much but the tops of things–trees, buildings, skies. But what else is there at a construction site? The sound of jackhammers? The sandy air? The smell of 10,000 village dreams burning?

Then Banu starts coming home with pockets full of rocks and sand and nails and metal rods. Everything she takes is broken or thrown in the rubbish.

And that isn’t even the strangest part.

The strangest part is that Banu starts building.

I know what you’re thinking. So what? The girl makes a few towers, maybe ties some rods together. That’s what children do. They build things.

But Banu is not like the rest of us.

Most of us never notice. We’re too busy mugging our seven times eight equals fifty six and Gandhiji was born on October 2nd and johnny johnny yes papa[2]. Sometimes we wonder about a thumping or a rattling or a crunching, but mostly we just carry on.

While we mug, Banu builds. Starts going off behind the bushes where the tallest and sturdiest coconut trees take root. Imagines an empire along the banks of the river of sludge flowing down from the hospital.

She builds a fort with metal spikes and pebble-sand towers and a moat big enough for a dragon or two. A palace with windows made out of broken bottles and a gate that slides open and closed. Rows and rows of flats with parking spaces and letter boxes and balconies lined with black iron railings. A farmhouse with a wire fence and two bedrooms and a kitchen with the fixtures for one of those brand new ignition stoves. She even builds roads, and let me tell you, Banu’s roads are stronger and straighter than any of the roads in Bangalore.

In fact, her whole city is stronger and straighter than Bangalore. Makes Bangalore look like it was stuck together with Fevicol and broken promises.

Don’t ask us how. She just does it.

It’s not that she builds to show off, either. We only find out because Yousef steals Joy’s bag and runs off and we chase him into the clearing where Banu looks at us with eyes like Bangalore potholes.

Yousef stops and we all run into his back, but not before Joy gives him one tight slap.

It’s like walking in on Bhumi while she’s becoming the earth. We just stare and stare and hold our breath.

Until Joy says, “Banu, you’re a builder.”

Until Kabini says, “I told you there was no boy.”

Until Prema says, “All this time you never told us.”

Not that it matters. In slums, everyone finds out everything eventually.

We go to a government school.

I’m guessing you go to a private school. Which means you have a lot of stuff that we don’t: new books, maybe? Toilets? Water? (The drinkable kind, not the mud puddle kind.)

But there’s one thing we have that you don’t.

Rats.

Lots and lots of fat, juicy, scurrying, burying rats.

You know what rats like to do?

Eat.

You know what rats like to eat?

Everything.

The radishes in the school garden. The registers on teachers’ desks. The pipes at the water pumps. The pais that the little kids sit on.

See what we mean by everything?

Janaki Madam–that’s our headmistress–she doesn’t like rats. That’s why she pays people to come and put traps and poison and whatever else to scare them away. Though if you ask us, Janaki Madam is scarier than any poison we’ve ever seen.

But even Janaki Madam can’t hold off a vermin scourge with just a government school budget.

These rats? They’re clever, mostly. (Definitely didn’t go to government schools.) At first, they leave bite marks and the occasional dropping, but they don’t show themselves. Not even a flash of paw or twitch of whisker to be seen.

Slowly, though, they start to get bold. We hear them shuffling behind the walls in the middle of the day. We catch their pink noses poking out from cracks in the plaster. We see their fuzzy behinds disappearing into burrows they leave wide open right where the oldest, nastiest boys play cricket after stopping by the liquor store on Sunday mornings.

And then, when still nothing happens to their scaly tails? That’s when the boldness really begins.

They smell the free government breakfast or the holiday meal served once a year on foil plates. Besan ladoos and chicken biryani. Donated by the rich guy who went to our school and miraculously made good. Proof that he didn’t forget the rest of us, even though, let’s be honest, he probably wishes he could.

Those rats smell the crumbs left on the plates and payasam slurps left in the tumblers. And they make a decision: in the middle of the day, they decide to run across the room, humans be damned, and feast.

And if they have to cross Maths Miss’s feet to get there, treading over her bare toes with their cold, pointy claws, then so be it. Annual ladoos are worth the risk.

Let me ask you this. Have you ever seen a grown woman jump up on the only desk in the whole room, not even caring when her sari hitches itself up around her bare belly in the most undignified way?

Have you ever heard the echoes of a shriek that is pure, unadulterated fear?

Have you ever seen a headmistress fly into the room faster than an August evening wind, her eyes blazing with the fire of a thousand vermin funerals, wielding a spade so expertly that she makes a crack in the wall where she just misses an uppity rat’s behind?

Well, we have. And it’s enough to make you believe that all those stone Kalis are too tiny to hold the fury in a single human woman’s heart.

“This has gone too far,” Janaki Madam says, pushing her loosened gray hair behind her ears, correcting her tilted spectacles. “These rats think they run the place.”

“Might I suggest an exterminator, Madam?” Maths Miss squeaks from on top of her desk, “or at least a bureau to hold some of the most tempting materials?”

“With what money, Sushila?”

“I can help,” Banu says.

“Who’s that?” Janaki Madam and Maths Miss ask.

“It’s me,” says Banu. “My name is Banu.”

Now don’t pass judgment. It must’ve been the third or fourth time Banu spoke in class. Ever. So how are the Headmistress and Maths Miss supposed to know? The scrambling scratch of rat feet is more common than the whisper of Banu’s voice.

You?” Maths Miss asks, probably remembering the score Banu got (or didn’t get) on our last exam.

“I can build something. To hold the records. To fence the radishes. To block the burrows.”

“Please,” Maths Miss scoffs.

“She can, Miss,” says Joy. “You should see the way she builds.”

“How much will it cost?” Janaki Madam asks.

“Nothing, Ma’am,” Banu says. “I’ll source the materials myself.”

“How much time do you need?”

“With the right team, I can do it in three days.”

“Then name your team,” Janaki Madam says, “and start today.”

Of course, the team is obvious–if you need something done, you ask us girls. So for three days, Banu becomes our forewoman, school becomes a construction site, and we become construction workers. We don’t mind, though, because we all skip lessons. Plus none of us are afraid of rats–we’ve protected each other from much worse than a bunch of over-achieving fur balls.

So we build.

And we build and we build and we build.

We build a fence around the kitchen garden with long pieces of wire Banu finds in the garbage pile behind the new showroom on 100 Foot Road. We install shelves with doors using pieces of wood and metal Banu drags from the houses they are bulldozing behind the posh flats made of glass. With the leftovers we build a trunk for the pais and toys for the little kids.

Banu finds new pipes for the water pump. She finds sand to stuff into the burrows on the compound grounds. She even finds plaster to seal up the cracks in the walls and along the floors where rats might hide, and paint to cover up the handiwork.

“Where’d you get this, Banu?” Deepa asks, tracing the newly filled cracks with her fingers.

“Behind the hospital,” Banu says.

“In the waste?” Leela shrieks.

Banu shrugs.

“Doesn’t that spread disease?” Kabini asks.

“Probably to the rats,” Banu nods.

“But what about us?” Rukshana asks.

“Stop it, all of you,” Joy snaps. “You’re builders now. Don’t question. Just build.”

Our feet are dusty and our backs ache. Our cheeks are coated in grime and our hands are scraped and rough. Our hair smells like sweat and paint and twisted metal.

But by the end of three days, it is a whole new school. Just like Banu promised.

Our midday meals are full of radishes. The little kids are snug and cozy on their pais. All the paper goods are nibble-free. The space behind the wall gets quiet.

Until one day, Janaki Madam says, “They tell me there’s a terrible rat infestation down at the new shopping mall.” She pushes her lips together so she won’t smile, and sticks out her hand to Banu. “Well done, child.”

Banu grins and shakes Janaki Madam’s hand. Because this, of course, is the surest sign of victory: the rats have given up on Ambedkar Government School. They have moved on to posher places. Places that would throw us out.

Where they went is not the point. The point is that they went, and it’s all because of Banu, and her builders.

Just then a raggedy looking thing in a faded patta pavade and dusty feet shuffles into the room, two pathetic brown pony tails sticking out from her chopped up hair. Her lips can’t hide her two front teeth. Her feet are too big for her legs, like her body was meant to grow more, but just didn’t have the strength.

“New student?” Janaki Madam asks.

“Another of those construction kids, is it?” Yousef says. “Or is it a rat?”

Normally, the rest of us would’ve laughed. After all, if you can’t look down on someone, what’s the point?

But today is not a normal day.

Joy leans across her desk and smacks Yousef across the face.

“What, yah?” Yousef turns red, maybe from Joy’s hand, but probably from her eyes.

“Don’t call her a rat,” Joy says. “Here, new girl,” she pats the space on the bench next to her. “Come sit next to me.”

The girl smiles her buck toothed smile.

“Are you…” the girl begins hesitantly.

“I’m a builder,” Joy says. “Just like you.”

 

~

Footnotes

[1] Indian English slang term for “memorize.”

[2] A rhyme commonly taught to Indian preschoolers. The full rhyme goes, “Johnny Johnny. Yes Papa? Eating sugar? No Papa. Telling lies? No Papa. Open your mouth, ha ha ha.”

Anglerfish: the Black Devil of the Deep
by E. M. Alexander

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Picture Book Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Far, far below the ocean’s surface, where no trace of light can be seen, the deep sea Anglerfish makes her home.

She glides slowly through the dark water. Always on the hunt, her jaw protrudes, baring razor-sharp teeth. She is a fearsome creature. She is the Black Devil of the Deep.

Unlike some of her cousin species like the monkfish, the goosefish, or the frogfish that live in more shallow water (a mere 300 feet down), the Angler lives in water so deep, it is always as black as midnight.

Although she doesn’t remember it, the Anglerfish once lived in the upper mesopelagic zone, known as the twilight zone, where the last traces of sunlight could still penetrate the water. In the scant light a thousand meters below the surface, creatures adapt to the darkness with large eyes.

Anglerfish began her life as a tiny egg that was released far below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and floated gently to the surface. As a baby fish, or fry, she feasted on plankton. As she grew into adulthood, she began her descent into the bathypelagic zone, 1,000 to 4,000 meters below the surface.

In the depths of the blackest water, the Anglerfish makes her own light. A tiny bioluminescent lure sprouts forth from a fin that grows between her eyes. “Bioluminescent” is a Latin word that means “living light.” Creatures with bioluminescent adaptations usually live in places where it is very, very dark. They might use their light as a signal, to scare away predators, or to illuminate prey. Only the female Anglerfish has this ability.

The Anglerfish needs her light to survive. She uses the glowing orb as bait, dangling it in front of her mouth like her very own fishing pole. Buried in the mud and sand, she lies in wait for a fish, a shrimp, or maybe even a crab.

Sometimes the Anglerfish wiggles her lure to entice her prey. She hopes they will be deceived and think that the moving light is a tasty morsel of food. When a fish or crab comes close enough, her stomach descends and she extends her flexible jaw. She opens her large mouth and swallows her meal whole. The Anglerfish prefers fish and shrimp, but in the deep, dark depths she calls her home, she will eat whatever she can catch.

A fierce hunter, she has earned the name of Black Devil. Living in a world without sunlight, her dark brown or black skin is a clever camouflage that helps her blend right into her surroundings. The average Anglerfish is six inches, but some can grow as large as 35 inches long. With her large mouth filled with sharp, pointy teeth, the Anglerfish looks like a prehistoric creature. Her skin does not have scales, but it can be covered in warts or spines.

The Anglerfish has jagged teeth that work like a hinge, snapping back into place when she has trapped her prey. Any fish caught in the mouth of a Black Devil will find itself locked in her mouth like a prisoner in a cell.

The Black Devil of the Deep traps her mates as well. She is larger than the tiny male Anglerfish, who only averages two and half to six inches in length. Previously scientists mistook the male Anglerfish for a tiny parasite living under the female’s skin. Now they know that the male attaches to the female’s skin and becomes absorbed into her body.

Their union is a matter of survival. The tiny male, born without a digestive system, cannot survive alone. His sole purpose at birth is to use his heightened sense of smell to seek out a healthy female and attach to her by biting into her flesh. Once attached, his jaws are dissolved by enzymes and his blood fuses with hers.

The Anglerfish will always carry with her one or more males. As their bodies join, all that will be left of the male is his reproductive organs, which the female Angler will use to fertilize her eggs. When she is ready to reproduce, in the spring or early summer, the Anglerfish will lay more than a million eggs in a single spawning.

Her offspring will spend a brief time closer to the sea’s surface, just as she once did, before slowly sinking down for a life in the water’s dark depths.

Once there, her children might be caught by a fisherman seeking out the only edible part of her body—the tail. Or, perhaps they will be lucky enough to make their own homes—far, far below the ocean’s surface, where no trace of light can be seen, in the darkest, loneliest place in the sea.

~

Sources For ANGLERFISH: THE BLACK DEVIL OF THE DEEP

Ganeri, Anita. Creatures That Glow. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

National Geographic. 12 October 2015.  http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/anglerfish/

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 5 October 2015. http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/light-distributed.html

 

 

Paddy Cats
by Helen Kampion

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Toshiko lived in a small village in Japan where the rice grew in rows as straight as chopsticks. Every day on her way to the rice paddies, Toshiko greeted the stray cats and scratched their backs.

Late one Monday afternoon, the sky grew black with feathers. A gigantic flock of birds swooped down and pecked at the rice.

Papa-san, what kind of birds are eating our rice?” asked Toshiko.

“I do not know, Little One,” answered Father. “But we must stop them, or all the villagers will starve. Tomorrow we must chase them away with kakashis, scarecrows.”

 

On Tuesday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers marched to the rice paddies. The cats crouched in the shadows.

The villagers carried bamboo poles hung with rags, fish bones, and meat. They hammered the poles into the ground and set them on fire. Smelly smoke swirled in the air.

Toshiko held her nose.

The cats growled and scurried away.

All day long the villagers lit kakashis.

But the birds stayed and ate.

“It didn’t work, Papa-san,” said Toshiko. “The birds must think it smells like koh, incense.”

Hai, yes, my daughter, these birds find the scent sweet,” said Father. We must try again tomorrow.”

That evening at mealtime, Toshiko’s rice bowl was not filled to the rim.

 

On Wednesday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers plodded to the rice paddies carrying drums. The cats huddled nearby.

The villagers placed the drums on either side of the paddies and beat them.

Boom! Boom!

The cats yowled and their tails bristled.

All day long the villagers banged the drums.

But the birds stayed and ate and ate.

“Oh no, Papa-san. The drums didn’t work either,” said Toshiko.

Hai, my daughter, these birds like the thunder of the drums,” said Father. “We must try again tomorrow.”

Papa-san, I have an idea,” said Toshiko, watching the cats chase a dragonfly.

“No, Little One, the problem is too big,” said Father. “And you are too small.”

That evening, Toshiko’s rice bowl was only half full.

And so was her stomach.

 

On Thursday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers trudged to the rice paddies. The cats straggled behind. The villagers carried bamboo poles topped with fierce cloth dragons. They pounded the poles into the ground.

The dragons snapped from side to side in the wind.

The cats arched their backs and hissed.

All day long the villagers added dragon poles.

But the birds stayed and ate and ate and ate.

Papa-san, these birds aren’t afraid of the mighty dragons,” said Toshiko.

Hai, my daughter, these birds have made friends of the dragons,” said Father.

“What will our village do now?” asked Toshiko.

“I do not know,” said Father. “If we cannot stop these birds, we will have nothing to eat and nothing to trade for fish or firewood.”

That evening, Toshiko’s rice bowl held only enough to fill a teacup.

And her empty stomach rumbled like an earthquake.

Papa-san, I can stop these birds from feasting,” said Toshiko.

“Little One, what can you do?” asked Father.

“I have an idea,” answered Toshiko.

“An idea? You are just a child.”

Hai, Papa-san, but it’s a very good idea.”

 

On Friday morning, every family carried a narrow wooden plank to the paddies. Toshiko showed them how to lay the planks between the rows of rice. Then she scattered scraps of fish on the wood. Toshiko grabbed the smelliest chunk.

“Wait here,” she said to the villagers, and darted down the road.

After a short while Toshiko reappeared with the stray cats. She walked backwards into the paddies, dangling the stinky fish in front of the cats. They followed her onto the planks and gobbled up the fish pieces. The startled birds screeched and took flight.

After eating, the cats strolled away and the birds returned.

Over the next two days, Toshiko fed the cats at different times. Each time, the cats scared away the birds. But when the cats disappeared, the birds returned.

 

On Monday morning, the cats waited for her.

Ohayō gozaimasu, good morning,” said Toshiko, feeding the cats. “Today you must stay in the paddies all day and keep the birds away.”

At the end of the day, Father and Toshiko checked the rice paddies. Toshiko saw only contented cats on the planks, and a few black feathers.

Papa-san, there are no birds!”

Hai, my daughter, your cats have saved our village,” said Father. “You may be small, but your ideas are big. Domo arigatō gozaimasu, thank you very much.”

Father bowed to Toshiko and to her paddy cats.

That evening, while the village celebrated, Toshiko filled two bowls of rice to the brim. A small bowl for herself, and a big one for her paddy cats.

 

~

Author’s Notes

For more than 2,000 years, rice has been an important part of Japanese culture. Not only used as a food source, for centuries rice was used as currency for paying taxes and high-ranking government workers, and as an indicator of one’s wealth.

Rice is such a staple of the Japanese diet that the word for meal and cooked rice are the same, gohan. The Japanese added a prefix to gohan to indicate their daily meals: breakfast, asa-gohan; lunch, hiru-gohan; and dinner, ban-gohan.

The most common way to grow rice is in water. It is cultivated by first soaking rice seeds in water and planting them in seedbeds. While the seeds are growing, the farmers plow the paddy to prepare the soil. After the seeds have germinated (sprouted), the seedlings are transferred from the seedbeds to the water-filled paddy. They are planted about two inches apart in neat rows by a machine or by hand. The plantings take place anywhere from the end of April to late June, depending on the region. The rice is harvested in the fall.

As with most crops, the farmers must deal with pests and predators. For centuries, the Japanese used scarecrows to frighten away birds in the rice paddies. The first type of scarecrow consisted of bamboo poles hung with rags, fish bones, and meat. The farmers would light them on fire and the smell would drive away birds and other animals. Because the smell was so bad, they called them kakashi, which means something stinky. Eventually, the farmers made scarecrows in the image of people, using reeds and placing straw hats on their heads. Sometimes farmers added bows and arrows to make the scarecrows appear more fierce. Even though they didn’t set these scarecrows on fire and the reeds didn’t stink, they kept the same name.