The Secret Kingdom

The Secret KingdomThis 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.

from The Secret Kingdom, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

sculp­ture by Bri­an Marshall

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.”

Nek Chand (pho­to: Gilles Prob­st, Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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
ISBN 978−0−7636−7475−5

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April Halprin Wayland
5 years ago

I’m sold! I’m send­ing your review to my local bookseller!

Lynne Jonell
5 years ago

Loved your descrip­tion, Vic­ki, and it’s on my library list!

David LaRochelle
5 years ago

It sounds like a great book, Vic­ki. It reminds me a lit­tle of Tin­ker­town in New Mex­i­co.
I vis­it­ed this world of folk art with my father about 12 – 15 years ago, which was rather poignant because the cre­ator of this place had died at an ear­ly age of Alzheimer’s and my father was slip­ping into the dis­ease at the time we vis­it­ed it — but we both still enjoyed the expe­ri­ence very much.

Joyce Ray
5 years ago

The title that came to mind imme­di­ate­ly was Rox­abox­en by Alice McLer­ran, illus­trat­ed by Bar­bara Cooney. Rox­abox­en was a real place in Ari­zona. Thank you for high­light­ing The Secret King­dom. I will let our Library know about it.