October 01, 2009


Slumgirl Dreaming: Rubina’s Journey to the Stars. By Rubina Ali in collaboration with Anne Berthod and Divya Dugar. Delacorte Press. $9.99.

First Kids: The True Stories of All the Presidents’ Children. By Noah McCullough. Scholastic. $7.99.

     It would be unkind to suggest that these books attempt shamelessly to exploit a young star of Slumdog Millionaire and the popularity of President Barack Obama’s children, respectively. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the books are cashing in on the 15 minutes of fame usually accorded to celebrities – young and old alike. But despite a certain cynicism in the books’ presentations, they contain a lot of interesting information and some material that will make readers really think about their subjects.

     Slumgirl Dreaming, in which the story of Rubina Ali – who at age nine played the youngest version of Latika in the hit film Slumdog Millionaire – is told by French journalist Anne Berthod and Indian journalist Divya Dugar, lets Rubina speak in her own voice in ways that are not typical in biographies of child stars. “I found Nicole Kidman strange but also very charming,” we learn at one point. “Everything was done on the set according to her desires and mood.” We never quite learn what the strangeness was, but the openness of Rubina’s comments shines through. “As for my biological mother, I hate her more than ever,” Rubina says after the woman accuses Rubina’s father of trying to sell Rubina to a sheik from Dubai. Also, “Americans eat different food to [sic] us. There was no dal, no chawal or chicken masala, but odd, strange-tasting things. It was all so tasteless.” This sort of fish-out-of-water comment typifies Slumgirl Dreaming, and can stand for the topic of the book as a whole. The reality is that “life hasn’t changed much for me except that now I’m aware of a world much more beautiful than my slum,” Rubina explains. Despite many offers to relocate the family, Rubina’s father, her beloved aba, refuses to leave the slum, because that is where he works as a carpenter and where he has all his contacts. “I want to become a great actress,” says Rubina. “If not an actress, I would like to be an astronaut.” That juxtaposition is typical of the charming naïveté that permeates Slumgirl Dreaming, in which the stories about stars known to Americans – Kidman, Danny Boyle and others – really are secondary to the tale of a young girl raised to heights of which most people worldwide can barely dream, only to find herself afterwards neither here nor there: living again in the slum where she has always been, but well aware now (as she was not before) of how big a world is out there beyond the boundaries of the poorest parts of Mumbai. Rubina’s world is reflected in her entire outlook on life. For instance, once, on the set, “someone was closing the toilet door and my finger got in the way. But there was a doctor on the set who bandaged it. In the slums, kids keep falling and getting hurt so it didn’t bother me that much.” This, not the glories of an award-winning film, is the reality of Rubina’s life.

     Things are considerably more upbeat for the Obama children, but as First Kids makes clear, many stories of presidential offspring can be as tragic as anything in Rubina Ali’s world. Noah McCullough, a 14-year-old author and political junkie, is entirely matter-of-fact in recounting what happened to some presidential children. “Edward Garfield was born on Christmas Day in 1874. He didn’t get to know his new family very well because he died on October 25, 1876, of whooping cough, just twenty-two months after his birth.” “William Lewis Arthur was born while his dad was in the military on December 10, 1860. He died of convulsions at the age of two, on July 7, 1863.” McCullough includes some interesting trivia in “Fast Facts” sections about each presidential family. “The [Rutherford B.] Hayes family had the very first Siamese cat in America.” “The [Millard] Fillmores were the first White House family to enjoy a bathtub. It was made of mahogany and lined with zinc.” “President Benjamin Harrison once hosted a birthday party for his grandson Baby McKee, who was turning four years old. …The menu was ground-up food (biscuits and bouillon), cake, and ice cream. The Marine band supplied the music.” In fact, the entire book is a trivia feast, simply organized by chronology (Washington through Obama) and with plenty of photos to supplement the text. A more seasoned author could do a great deal more with any number of the stories that McCullough tells in a few words. For example, “Tazewell Tyler…served in the medical corps for the Confederacy. After the war, he practiced medicine in three different states: Virginia, Maryland and California. …He later died of alcoholism at the age of forty-three on January 8, 1874.” But the once-over-lightly approach of this book does have advantages: it lets young readers skim through a lot of presidential family history easily, and avoids going too deeply into matters of politics and policy. Perhaps the book will even inspire some readers to find out more information than McCullough includes. For example, there is surely a story worth exploring in the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who “requested not to be buried with his famous first family upon his death” and who was in Washington not only when his father was assassinated but also when Presidents Garfield and McKinley were killed.

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