One of my favorite quotations about children’s literature ever comes from the marvelous R. L. Stine: “I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value.” This doesn’t mean that the books in question aren’t good on an aesthetic level, of course. It just means some books don’t have to be anything more than FUN, delivering the big emotions readers crave at every stage of life, but especially as children and YAs: the adrenaline of the fight scene, the thrill of the kiss, the shiver of terror that Mr. Stine renders so expertly. Quite often they’re genre books—fantasies or romances or horror or mysteries—or published in series, like my long-ago-beloved Babysitters Club books. They don’t teach anything, they don’t require too much work from the reader, they’re all about the pleasure of the experience . . . and the experience is awesome.
Historically, kids of color who wanted to see themselves in these kinds of books have had a hard time finding such stories. And on the flip side, books about people of color have often been presented under an aura of nothing but socially redeeming value, for the history they teach, the cultural information they impart, or the cross-cultural reader’s virtue in picking them up at all. But all of that has been changing, slowly but steadily, and I am now immensely proud to introduce you to a book with a hero of color, in a world drenched with color, and no socially redeeming value at all: The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda.
The Savage Fortress is the story of Ash Mistry, a thirteen-year-old boy from London, England, who goes to visit his aunt and uncle in India with his little sister. While exploring some ruins near Varanasi, Ash discovers a gleaming gold arrowhead hidden in the sands—a weapon used to defeat evil King Ravana in legend.
At least, Ash is pretty sure it’s only a legend . . .
But when Lord Alexander Savage comes after Ash, the legends are suddenly way too real. Savage commands an army of monstrous shapechangers called rakshasas, who want only to seize the arrowhead and restore Ravana to power. As they hunt Ash through magnificent fortresses and brutal deserts, he must learn to work with an powerful rakshasa girl named Parvati, and find the strength within himself to battle on no matter what. Because this isn’t just a fight to stop the end of the world. It’s a fight to stop the end of reality as we know it.
Sarwat Chadda made a splash in the YA world a few years ago with his novels Devil’s Kiss and Dark Goddess. When his agent sent me this manuscript for middle-graders, I was thrilled because the novel does so many things I love: The action sequences get your heartbeat going, full of grand fights and suspenseful chases, some moments where I held my breath and others where I wanted to stand up and cheer. The rakshasas are truly creepy and brilliant—my favorite besides Parvati was the spider lady whose facial scars open up to reveal six additional black eyes. (And if you didn’t just shudder with horror at that image, you are a stronger reader than I.) Parvati herself is fierce and wounded and fascinating, capable of making her enemies bleed with either her four-bladed serpent sword or her equally sharp wit. The book as a whole was funny, full of one-liners that still make me laugh out loud. And it has a great story about a boy who’s so used to being a loser that not even he believes he can be a hero, digging deep and finding that hero inside. I loved it for all the same reasons I loved Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series . . . the sheer adventure, with no socially redeeming value attached.
With that said, I admit that some education might happen here, given that the book is set in a country far from most American readers’ daily lives, and involves a rich mythology that stretches back twice as far as the Greek myths Mr. Riordan draws from. And kids who, like Sarwat, are of South Asian descent, might very well feel a frisson of pride at seeing a hero who looks like them — which indeed is why Sarwat wrote the book, as he says beautifully in a blog post here.
So the irony is that as one of the rare adventure novels with an unabashed hero of color, The Savage Fortress may well be socially redeeming, while its swordfights, its twists, its rakshasa chases, and its all-around kickass nature are all so NOT socially redeeming. Still, don’t give it to your kids because it’s good for them. They deserve better. Give it to them for the monsters, and make R.L. Stine proud.
R.L. Stine photo credit: Dan Nelken