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Book Review - Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a

Tara Menon

Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a
by Megan McDonald
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003

Megan McDonald’s “Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a” is a far cry from traditional English lullabies like “Rock-a-Baby.” Not only does she present us with Indian characters, but she scatters Hindi words, and conjures up rural village life. The effect is a daring lullaby that wouldn’t have worked without the right illustrations. But fortunately, the colorful pictures help kids familiar with TV and computers understand how a scarf can be turned into a hammock and how a bird can adorn a nest with fireflies.

A mother’s love is celebrated in this lullaby by showing us the many tasks she engages in to ensure her baby is safe and snug. As Mata weaves river green, sun red, sky blue, saffron, and indigo into a safekeeping blanket, a baya bird painstakingly constructs her nest out of grass and acacia petals. The mother wraps her baby in the “color of one hundred mornings.” She carries the baby to the well. She knots her scarf in the branches of a tree. She puts the baby in the hammock. A cobra slithers from the tree but before it can harm the baby, the baya bird shrieks a warning.

Mata hurries home with her baby. All the way she sings and rocks to her. Once they are home, she sings to her baby that she will bathe her with a cup of water, feed her ripe, sweet mangoes, and weave a garland of flowers. She boasts that when the garland of flowers fade, she’ll pull down the moon for her.

As the night falls, the baya bird dabs clay onto her nest. She catches fireflies to adorn her nest. “A thousand tiny sparks- a flickering lamp, treeful of stars.” One by one, other creatures like the tree mouse, the mason wasp and the spider use the nest. Finally, Mata takes the nest to hang it in the doorway. She tells the baby to sleep under her own small moon.

At the end of the book, McDonald gives us a few relevant details about the baya bird. She also tells us about some interesting ways people use the nest.

I think “Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a” works better as a story for young children than a lullaby. The sentences do not have the simplicity or sustained musical cadences to soothe a child. The smattering of Hindi words introduce children to the sounds of another language. But though a story generally imbibes richness when words from the characters’ language are included, I felt they intrude here. Also, the glossary didn’t include any phonetics to help readers with the pronunciation of Hindi words.

The artist, Vera Rosenberry, has also illustrated “Together” and “Savitri.” Some of her pictures in the book are worthy of being framed and hung on a wall. Nature is well depicted. She executed the picture with the cobra in a such a way that it excites the young reader rather than frightens him or her. This is not such an easy job to accomplish, as I’ve seen excellent illustrations with beautiful but frightening scenes for the same age group. In the picture of the mother telling the child all the things she’ll do for her, the illustrator gives Mata a goddess like stature. She is depicted with two pairs of arms, each one doing a different task. One of her hands holds up a crescent moon surrounded by a halo of stars. This is a good interpretation of the Indian belief that a mother should be revered like a goddess.

“Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a” is a sophisticated tale in the mushrooming category of books about a parent’s love. A book about an Indian mother and her baby is a welcome addition.

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