Asha & the Spirit Bird

Chosen by Farhana

We know you shouldn’t judge a book by the way it looks. However, with its shimmering turquoise, pink, gold, purple and silver cover featuring birds, flowers, mountains, gemstones and tigers that look ready to leap off the page, Jasbinder Bilan’s Asha & the Spirit Bird is just as gorgeous on the inside. Get ready for an epic, magical adventure.

The story follows 11-year-old Asha, who lives a humble existence in the foothills of the Himalayas, helping her mum run their farm while her dad works far away in the city. However, when he suddenly stops sending money home and months pass by with no word, evil money-lenders threaten to take away their house and Asha’s mum talks of moving abroad. But Asha is having none of it, and hatches a plan with her best friend Jeevan to run off to find her father in time. Cue a thrilling journey, as the children navigate mountains, wild animals, hunger, tiredness and criminals. Though, perhaps Asha is also being guided by the mysterious spirit bird of her late grandma - her nanijee...

Winner of the Costa Children's Book Award 2019 and the Times/ Chicken House children’s fiction competition 2017, this is a lush and evocative story about the power of family and self-belief. In Asha, we have a strong young female protagonist (yay!), with solid support from her wingman Jeevan, and the novel is an engaging adventure with a satisfying ending that draws all the threads together in delightful ways. It also has its fair share of scary and magic-realist moments, in the form of treacherous weather, criminal gangs, snow leopards, tigers, wolves and lamagaias (bearded vultures), and even a magical mango plant.

In fact, some of the most unique and pleasurable parts of the story lie in the way that the author uses setting and cultural and religious elements. Jasbinder Bilan was born in Northern Punjab on a farm close to the Himalayas herself, and her love of the place and its people really shows. From descriptions of pistachio trees with soft green purple-streaked nuts, to dhabba stalls selling freshly made dhosa, to climbing snow-covered paths to the highest temple in the world, to taking comfort in the stories of Rama and Sita and Divali, such details are seamlessly woven throughout the main narrative to form a richly textured whole.

So, if you're looking for an absorbing, thrilling and magical middle-grade book that celebrates the power of family, friendship and self-belief, then we recommend the captivating Asha & the Spirit Bird.

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