This book is irresistible. For all kinds of reasons.
Remember when you were a kid, or maybe you do this now, how you’d take whatever was at hand and create a house, a camp, an entire setting for you to play in? Where you could act out your stories? Did you do this with found items from nature? Or things your family was throwing away? Did you scoop up cool fabric or papers to use when you needed them? Then this book is for you.
The author and illustrator tell the story of Nek Chand. It begins this way:
“On the continent of Asia, near the mighty Himalayas, in the Punjab region of long ago, sat the tiny village of Berian Kalan, the place Nek Chand Saini called home.”
Claire A. Nevola, who is, I confess, one of my favorite illustrators because she knows how important the details are and seems to read my mind about what I need to know, begins with this illustration.
As you can see on the cover of the book, there are broken pots and ribbons and warped bicycle wheels, just the sort of thing you and I might have collected. Perhaps you still do. (Another confession, I have a Pinterest board where I keep examples of characters made from Found Objects, so collecting bits and scraps is always on my mind. Here’s one of the characters I find so charming.)
Barb Rosenstock tells the story. Nek Chand is born a storyteller. He notices the people and the world around him. He appreciates his village and the people, the community, with whom he lives. Until the Punjab is split into two countries, Pakistan and India. Nek’s village is in Pakistan, which is now Muslim. His family is Hindu. “The Saini family fled at night, walking for twenty-four days across the new border into India. Nek carried only village stories in his broken heart.”
We have seen current photos. The nightly news tells us stories (not enough of them) of the people who are leaving their much-loved homes. The Secret Kingdom takes place in 1947. It could be taking place today.
What is most important about this book is that it the true story of what one man does to wrap himself in the memories of home. With much effort, Nek finds a spot in the jungle near his new town. Patiently, he begins to clear a space, collect discarded treasures and boulders from riverbeds, and “half-dead plants from the city dump.” He began to tell his stories by creating art, a sanctuary, a place he could feel at home.
He’s built all this on government land. After many years, he is discovered, and the government intends to demolish all of his artwork.
“Everyone in Chandigarh learned his secret. Officials were outraged. Nek Chand Saini should lose his job!
His Kingdom would be destroyed.
Until the people of Chandigarh came.”
That stopped my breathing. It was the people who recognized immediately how important this secret kingdom of Nek Chand’s truly was. And it was the people who worked to save it.
At the end of the story, there is a truly appropriate fold-out section with photographs that will have you saying, “Yes! I understand why this had to be saved. I would have worked with the community to do this.”
A biography of Nek Chand is in the Author’s Note, helping the reader understand how important and vital this man was. He died at age 90 in 2015. His art remains.
This is the story of what one person can do to preserve our stories. It is also the story of how a community of people can protect, defend, and preserve what is truly important to them. It is an irresistible true story.
Highly recommended for school and home.
The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art
written by Barb Rosenstock
illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
published by Candlewick Press, 2017