It is rare to find an exceptional novel for children with the current emphasis on YA literature rather than on children’s books. Kelsey and the Porcelain Doll by Rosanne Hawke (UQP) is an exceptional Australian book for younger readers. With her background of living in Pakistan as an aid worker, Hawke has incorporated cultural and lifestyle details authentically into a perfectly formed story.
8-year-old Kelsey moves temporarily to Pakistan with her father who will help the people rebuild after a flood and with her mother who is a nurse. Pakistan seems like an alien place to Kelsey with its Bollywood music, mudbrick houses and ‘charpai’ woven beds. She particularly misses her afternoon teas with Nanna Rose. During their Skype sessions Nanna Rose, with additions by Kelsey, tells the story of a porcelain doll which is bought by an elderly lady and sent a long way by airmail. She is checked for bombs by customs, grabbed by a dog, dropped into a flooded river, stolen by a monkey and cared for by a couple of children.
The chapters about the doll, Amy Jo, alternate with chapters about Kelsey who has made a friend, Shakila, and is becoming part of life in her remote village school. She is able to demonstrate spoken English to help the students and asks her class in Australia to help raise money for pencils, exercise books and medicine. Even though Kelsey is comparatively rich materially, Shakila is rich in family, with multiple relatives. Rosanne Hawke doesn’t shy away from the gritty reality of life in Pakistan. One of the school girl’s sister drowned in the flood and the water shouldn’t be drunk – a problem for Kelsey when she saves Shakila’s little brother from the river. Urdu words are used thoughtfully throughout the book, and are also explained in a glossary. And Kelsey reads an ebook about a ‘girl who disappeared into paintings on the wall to save her family in the past’. (This book is outed in the ‘Acknowledgements’ as The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray – an outstanding book published in 2013 which won the Children’s category of the Aurealis awards). In creating this tale, Hawke has also been inspired by The Tin Soldier, The Lost Coin and The Velveteen Rabbit and the illustrations have been thoughtfully drawn by award-winning Briony Stewart.