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Mala

by Gita Wolf, Annouchka Gravel Galouchko, illus.

Subtitled “A Women’s Folktale,” Mala is the story of a courageous girl who defies the odds and goes in search of a demon that has been responsible for a drought. The story is adapted from a film made in India, which in turn was based on a traditional Indian folktale. This is a North American edition with stunning artwork by Quebec artist Annouchka Gravel Galouchko.

Mala’s brother Mani is turned into stone when he attempts to recover the rain seed that the demon has stolen. Now it is Mala’s chance to save the village and find her brother. But because she is a girl, she is denied the opportunity to rise to the challenge. The solution: change herself into her masculine alter-ego. The resultant boy, Amal, is then equipped with a special mirror, inside which Mala is hidden. This is fortunate for Amal, since he is unable to answer any of the demon’s three riddles without Mala’s subtle coaching inside the mirror. At the end, Mala is justly rewarded for her bravery and wisdom – a good role model for kids everywhere.

I assumed that since there is no mention of a translator, the book was originally written in English, but colloquialisms such as “Hey, what’s this?” and “you little shrimp” jarred my ear. And although the story is interesting from a feminist perspective, it was disappointing to see Mala placed under Amal’s control, when it was evident from the start that she had all the brains. There is also a perceptible absence of dramatic tension when it is needed most – during the encounter between the demon and Amal/Mala. The answers to the three riddles do not have sufficient dramatic build-up, and the resulting climax is rather tame.

The artwork, however, is outstanding. Rich, bold colour is used in conjunction with motifs and symbols, both dramatic and humorous. Galouchko, who won the 1995 Governor-General’s award for her illustrations in Sho and the Demons of the Deep, shows remarkable sensitivity to Indian landscape, imagery, and design.