When reading children’s stories, I typically base my reviews on two things; the first is the story and the second are the illustrations. For Kelsey Lee’s The Tiger Like Me, I went into reading this book sort of anticipating that both would be done well based on my cursory look the synopsis and cover. As I continued reading it, however, I began to feel a little unhappy with a couple things. And while I want to preface this by saying that I do, generally, really like the idea and the overall path that this little girl takes in finding herself, facing fears, and following her dream through the jungle near her village, there are a few things I take issue with.
The first is not readily apparent by simply looking at the cover, but this story appears to be set in India. Both the background and the clothing depicted in the illustrations lead me to this conclusion. See, the thing that really bugged me the entire time I was reading this was that literally all of these characters are quite fair-skinned. And while I do not consider myself an authority on race, the fact that all the characters were depicted in this way and this book was not written by an Indian woman left me feeling deeply uncomfortable with it.
Then there’s Abhi. Did anyone else notice that as she continues to rebel against her family’s expectations for her to be a “proper princess” (as described in the book) that she begins to look more and more westernized? I honestly feel like I need an explanation as to why exactly the author thought it was necessary to change her outfit from what generally appeared to be traditional Indian clothing to…a safari getup, complete with a belt, boots, and binoculars. Why was it necessary for her to express her individuality by completely shedding herself of her culture?
Lee’s decision to have done so feels very inappropriate.
Ultimately, that was my biggest issue with this short book. Unfortunately, it was not my only issue.
My second problem comes down to Abhi’s sisters. There are a number of things that I really didn’t like about the way they were depicted, but the main one comes in the very line that they are introduced. “I have seven sisters who are all the same.” That is precisely how they are all portrayed throughout the entire story.
I find this problematic.
Abhi may very well naively think this of her sisters, however children reading this are not going to have the self-awareness and general understanding to recognize that Abhi is probably wrong about her sisters. The fact that all seven girls are unnamed, posited as all being the exact opposite of Abhi (namely quiet, reserved, studious, and complacent), and presented as angry and judgemental of Abhi is ridiculous. This book very much suffers from the troublesome “not like other girls” trope.
None of her sisters have any real personality beyond compliance. They all glare at Abhi regularly and later trick her into wandering out into the potentially (for all they know, at least) dangerous jungle, alone and away from any adult supervision. By all accounts, every single one of her sisters are awful people. Well, except for one who doesn’t glare with the others and genuinely does look bad when the other six send Abhi off into the trees.
Looking back, I’ll say this much: that one sister is actually not that bad. She smiles when Abhi jumps around, smiles and does her puzzle silently while her other sisters all glare, and frowns uncomfortably when everyone else sends Abhi off into the jungle. But also, she’s not really great either. She’s kind of sideline watching and doesn’t even go after her sister. Frankly, that would have been a better story. Why didn’t Abhi have at least one of her sisters be curious enough to join her?
Why weren’t there some sisters who wanted to keep her safe? Why didn’t some of them tell her that they wouldn’t want to do what she does, but they’re glad she’s happy? Why did they all have to be presented as wanting her to conform to expectations? It’s so insanely frustrating.
I didn’t hate this book.
I do honestly really like the majority of the illustrations. Naturally, some things bothered me and I do feel they are problematic. But other pieces of the art are pretty amazing, like the setting and the animals. The general premise of the story, one of embracing yourself even if you’re quite different from those around you, is one I love and applaud.
I just wish that the story had been presented better. I wish the sisters had personalities and that they weren’t all awful. I wish this wasn’t falling into a “not like other girls” problematic trope. I wish the language weren’t at such a high level considering the age this book is likely to be directed at (pursue is a bit much for a kid). I wish that the artwork didn’t show a little girl finding herself by completely throwing away her culture. I wish that her culture wasn’t subsequently being looked down upon as a result.
Whether the author realizes it or not, the message being sent by Abhi’s journey is going to be received as a distaste for the culture she was born in and a preference for one that is westernized and more individualistic. I’m not sure if that was the author’s intended message, but regardless it is one that is being sent. And as such, I couldn’t feel comfortable recommending this to someone unless it was specifically to point out why the very things I mentioned above are a problem.
In conclusion, I wanted to like this book. Some things were good. Most of it made me uncomfortable.
I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.