Review: Asha and the Spirit Bird

I love reading and writing Middle Grade books, but as an educator the genre can really stress me out. Whenever I imagine my students ending up in the same situations as these protagonists I have to put the book down! But the struggles Asha faces are exactly what make this lovely bookso adventurous and endearing. 

Title: Asha and the Spirit Bird

Author: Jasbinder Bilan

Quick Pitch: Asha and her best friend, guided by a bird who holds the spirit of her grandmother, must make a dangerous journey to a city a long way from their remote Indian village in order to find Asha’s father and bring him home before Asha’s whole family is evicted.

Why it’s diverse: Indian protagonist and cast, Hindu culture, religion, and folklore

#OwnVoices: Yes

CWs: death, mild gore, child slavery

Rating: 4/5 persevering mango plants

Asha and the Spirit Bird follows the journey of 11-year-old Asha and her best friend Jeevan as they journey to find Asha’s missing father. The two best friends must climb the Himalayas, travel through dark, freezing forests and navigate a dangerous city — all in the few short weeks before Diwali, when Asha’s family is set to move to England if her father doesn’t reappear. Asha does have a guide, the spirit of her grandmother in a lamagaia, or bearded vulture. But her grandmother’s spirit can’t save the children from every hardship, and as their journey continues they realise they’ll be lucky if they ever return home, let alone with Asha’s father. 

Asha and the Spirit Bird is the debut book of author Jasbinder Bilan, an OwnVoices Indian writer. The book was published in the Uk/Australia/New Zealand in 2019, but just had its North American release in June 2020. It is a lovely book with quite beautiful prose. It never gets too wordy, but has a great lyrical quality to it. Combined with a fast pace and strong sense of urgency woven into the narrative, the book manages to be both reflective and adventurous. Moments of sanctuary and spirituality are believably followed by the next harrowing experience the kids face. 

The story really does get harrowing. Spoiler warning for this paragraph, but in the last third of the book Asha and Jeevan are kidnapped off a city street and sold into child slavery, living in a dump for several weeks until they are able to free themselves and all the other children. While the book has struggles and close calls before this event, I was surprised by the very dark, if not realistic, turn it took.

Thankfully, the core of the story is one of hope. That thread of hope was really woven through Asha’s magical abilities. The magic in this book is quite soft, with no explicitly spelled out powers, and is rooted in Bilan’s own culture and spirituality. While Asha is confident in her magic and the magic around her, it takes Jeevan and the other characters in the story much longer to share her belief. But as other’s belief in Asha grows, so grows the magic, until it culminates in a few very satisfying ways. Out of the traumatic events of the long journey comes a happy ending that ties up all loose ends in a way that is positively joyous. Perhaps the ending is a little too perfect, considering the dark realism of other parts of the book, but I’m a sucker for a happily ever after. 

My quibbles with Asha and the Spirit Bird are very few. I found that the third act flew by a bit too fast, but the solidness of the ending mostly made up for that. Also, and this is completely personal preference, I had hoped that there would be no romance hinted at between Asha and Jeevan. Their friendship is amazing — loving, imperfect, and unbreakably strong. They had such a lovely friendship I hoped this story wouldn’t do the usual Middle Grade trope of pointing boy-girl friendship towards romance, but it did. Then again, a trope is a trope for a reason. A lot of 11-year-old boy-girl friends do start crushing on each other, and with a bond like Asha and Jeevan, I really can’t blame them.

This was a heartfelt and fast-paced read. I would recommend Asha and the Spirit Bird to anyone (a mature) 8+

eARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss+ in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect the contents of my review.

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