Guerilla warfare, child soldiers, landmines and a coming-of-age story for young readers

“Guerilla warfare, child soldiers and landmines: What do these ripped-from-the-headlines terms have to do with a coming-of-age story for young readers? As it turns out, quite a bit.”Book Page

Bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, Burma is a country in Southeast Asia. One-third of Burma’s total perimeter of 1,200 miles forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. It is the 24th most populous country in the world with over 60.28 million people.


Burma is home to some of the early civilizations of Southeast Asia including the Pyu and the Mon. In the 9th century, the Burmans of the Kingdom of Nanzhao entered the upper Irrawaddy valley and, following the establishment of the Pagan Empire in the 1050s, the Burmese language and culture slowly became dominant in the country. During this period, Theravada Buddhism gradually became the predominant religion of the country. The Pagan Empire fell due to the Mongol invasions (1277–1301), and several warring states emerged. In the second half of the 16th century, the country was reunified by the Taungoo Dynasty which for a brief period was the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia.The early 19th century Konbaung Dynasty ruled over an area that included modern Burma as well as Manipur and Assam. The country was colonized by Britain following three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–1885). British rule brought social, economic, cultural and administrative changes. Since independence in 1948, the country has been in one of the longest running civil wars among the country’s myriad ethnic groups that remains unresolved. From 1962 to 2011, the country was under military rule. The military junta was officially dissolved in 2011 following a general election in 2010 and a nominally civilian government installed, thought the military retains enormous influence.

A resource-rich country, the Burmese economy is ironically one of the least developed in the world. The nation’s health care system is one of the worst anywhere, ranked 190th by The World Health Organization. Thus, it is the worst performing of all countries. Further, The United Nations and several other organizations have reported consistent and systematic human rights violations in Burma. These atrocities include child labor, human trafficking and very little freedom of speech.

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins is a coming-of-age story narrated by two fourteen-year-old boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma. Chiko, a studious Burmese youth, has been seized by the government for his liberal views and is conscripted into the Burmese army. Tu Reh, a Karenni boy whose home and bamboo fields are destroyed by the Burmese soldiers, is eager to fight for his people. When Chiko and Tu Reh meet, a close friendship is forged, demonstrating their courage to overcome violence and prejudice.

Well-educated American boys from privileged families have abundant options for college and career. For Chiko, their Burmese counterpart, there are no good choices. There is never enough to eat, and his family lives in constant fear of the military regime that has imprisoned Chiko’s physician father. Soon Chiko is commandeered by the army, trained to hunt down members of the Karenni ethnic minority. Tai, another “recruit,” uses his streetwise survival skills to help them both survive. Meanwhile, Tu Reh, a Karenni youth whose village was torched by the Burmese Army, has been chosen for his first military mission in his people’s resistance movement. How the boys meet and what comes of it is the crux of this multi-voiced novel. While Perkins doesn’t sugarcoat her subject—coming of age in a brutal, fascistic society—this is a gentle story with a lot of heart, suitable for younger readers than the subject matter might suggest. It answers the question, “What is it like to be a child soldier?” clearly, but with hope. – Kirkus Reviews

Here are some discussion and activity topics for the book.

1) In her author’s note, Mitali Perkins writes that her interactions with the Karenni people she met along her travels in Thailand led her to think of the bamboo plant as “an excellent symbol for the peoples of that region.” What does she mean by this?
Using quotes and examples from the book, write an essay explaining this symbolism.

2) Daw Widow is a strong-willed character treated with a great amount of respect by Chiko and his mother. She ultimately convinces Chiko’s mother that her son should go to take the teacher’s exam, despite the fact that it may be a trap. Why does Daw
Widow’s opinion hold so much weight? Why doesshe change her mind about Chiko’s future?

3) When Chiko’s father was captured, he called out, “Take care of your mother, Chiko!” (p. 6) Although Chiko replied that he would, he does not think that he has kept that promise. In what ways has Chiko taken care of his mother? In what ways has he not? Do you think Chiko has kept his promise, or has he failed? Why or why not?

Discussion and activity topics reposted with permission. For further strategies to use with this title, see this Activity and Discussion Guide.

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