Mitali Perkins latest picture book, Home is in Between explores ‘the space between cultures’. Shanti, a young girl leaves the only home she has known in her grandmother’s village in India to a new home, oceans away in America. Unpacking their belongings in their new home, Shanti and her parents settle into a new town and its unfamiliar ways. Flitting back and forth between old memories and the contours of her new home, she struggles with differences in weather, language, manners, foods and festivals.
Shanti’s story, is achingly familiar to many immigrant families. Adapting to a new place with its written and unwritten codes and juggling the expectations of home and family can be challenging. For Shanti too, some things remain familiar such as no shoes in her house, luchi for lunch and comforting cultural familiarity of the songs and dances of her homeland.
Outside of this safe space however, everything is different – from the red and orange leaves, the cold rain, school and figuring out where one fits in and belongs. While her parents engulf her with love and warmth, she still struggles ‘remembering the village, learning the town’. Often in immigrant families children are more immersed their new environment and must adapt to their school setting from an early age. They in turn begin to serve as interpreters to their parents though, this leads to exhaustion and poor Shanti still doesn’t know where she belongs.
In a moment of epiphany, looking at the blue sky above her, she realizes that we are all one under the great blue sky so while she has to learn to flit and adapt, she also learns to make space for the unique parts of her. Code switching is an integral part of the immigrant experience and learning to love and share who you are takes time. Perkins sweet and restrained story underlines the message that we all belong and can create a space for our culture and experiences.
While she incorporates rich multicultural dimensions of Shanti’s life through pan-Indian experiences of biryani, Bollywood and Holi, she also introduces the diversity of the Indian experience with little nods to her Bengali heritage through mentions of Bangla, luchis and her Didu (grandma). I only wish there was a little more exploration of this diversity. In the vein of books such as Same Same but Different, Home is in Between expands the conversation of immersion in a new place and culture.
The illustrations by Lavanya Naidu maintains an animated sense of the Shanti’s back and forth and the push and pull that she experiences. The warm palette of her family in India rendered in shades of green and orange contrast with cool blues and reds in her new home. The trusty blue elephant that Shanti carries with her also seems to reflect her emotions and sense of flux. Shanti finally comes to accept her space in between these cultures and like her name, which means ‘peace,’ she finds peace with her old and new homes, cultures and herself.