By Maureen Tai, 27 August 2020
“Most people in America cannot pronounce my name.” – Ravi
” My name is Joe, but that’s not what most people call me.” – Joe
In a world that desperately needs to hear diverse voices, especially those that have been traditionally silenced by louder, more strident ones, Save Me A Seat serves up not one but two extremely likeable and authentic voices. This heartwarming middle grade book, a unique and masterfully executed collaboration between two accomplished authors, recounts the events of the first week at Albert Einstein Elementary School, New Jersey, as experienced by two very different fifth graders. Ravi, bespectacled and small-built, “shrimpy” by some accounts, recently arrived with his family from India, and Joe, earbuds in his ears and toweringly tall, “big footed” by other accounts. How will our two main protagonists survive their first week of American cafeteria food, let alone the predations of the hateful class bully?
Ravi’s first day starts badly from the get go. His teacher attempts, and fails, to pronounce his last name, and mangles his first name by placing the emphasis on the wrong syllable. His classmates can’t make out his impeccable English because of his strong accent and his maths methods, while exemplary and award-winning in his previous school, are openly ridiculed in class. Ravi’s confidence plummets as the days progress. His scholastic achievements and sporting accomplishments in India are irrelevant and meaningless in this new landscape. To his horror, his class teacher singles him out for extra help. By lunch time of the second school day, Ravi finds himself in the resource room with another teacher, Miss Frost, and one of his classmates who is, in Ravi’s mind, chalk to his cheese.
Unbeknownst to Ravi, Joe is in the resource room not because he is quiet or intellectually challenged, or because he has a voracious appetite or big feet, but because he has APD (Auditory Processing Disorder) which affects the way he hears things. As Joe works through exercises with Miss Frost to help train his ears and brains, he eats peanut M&Ms from a bowl in her office, always on the lookout for the rare and elusive blue doubles. Joe notices that Ravi’s name is being mispronounced, just like he noticed that his fourth grade teacher wore his seventeen different bow ties in sequence and that Dillon, the smartest boy in his class, is light-fingered, winking whenever he is up to no good.
As the week progresses and we look through the alternating eyes of Ravi and Joe, mesmerised by the unfolding scenery, we learn that Dillon is also the meanest bully in their class. Will Ravi be able to pull himself up after the humiliations meted out by Dillon? Will Joe be able to find his voice and the courage to speak up for himself and for others? Will the boys unite in the face of a common enemy and forge an unlikely friendship? You’ll have to read the book to find out (but I think you can guess the answer).
What impressed me most about Save Me A Seat is the authenticity of the voices, in particular Ravi’s, and the amount of care and thought expended by the authors into the scene setting. I am not of Indian descent, but the small details masterfully woven into the descriptions of Ravi’s life with his extended family and their daily exchanges brought back memories of my own childhood in Malaysia, growing up in a typical Malaysian Chinese household with (to us) typical Malaysian Chinese grandparents and parents. It is a familiar and comforting place to be. Ravi is, at times, a child I had once been or had known in school. Ravi’s grandmother, Perimma, is my own grandmother, criticising my mother’s home cooking with a disdainful sniff. Ravi’s grandfather, Perippa, in his monkey cap and sweater, is my own grandfather, rolling cigarettes wordlessly in a corner of the living room. Save Me A Seat holds up a mirror while also opening a window into the lives of two very different families, a rare but much welcomed accomplishment.
For ages 8 and up.