Sugar in Milk

By Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le. Running Press Kids, 2020. 48 pages. $17.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Friends Journal recommends for ages 8 and up.

Sugar in Milk is a charming book about the immigration experience. The book is narrated in the first person, and the lovely illustrations portray a young, unnamed girl in a setting that looks to be Manhattan, as indicated by illustrations of Central Park and iconic skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. The main character has left her home country and now resides with an aunt and uncle. She misses home, her parents, and her cats. The girl’s feelings of loneliness and homesickness are eased when her aunt takes her for a walk and tells her an ancient story about a group of Persian immigrants who, having been forced from their home, travel to the shores of India. Hearing about their successful integration into a different culture helps the girl mentally adapt to her new home.

I especially like the structure of this book: it is a story within a story. When I read it, I instinctively knew that there was more to the aunt’s story. With some research, I learned that the aunt tells a simplified version of “The Story of Sanjan” (“Qissa-i Sanjan”), which was originally written in 1599 C.E., and is considered to be a true account of the Zoroastrian migrants who left Persia in roughly 642 C.E. when Muslims conquered the country. They fled by sea to Gujarat on the western coast of India.

In the story the aunt tells, the Persian migrants meet with a local king who politely tells them that his country is overcrowded. The original version indicates the travelers met with Hindu king Jadi Rana, who was known for his religious tolerance. The gist of the story is the same in both versions: Due to the language barrier, the king tries to communicate visually by holding out a full container of milk to indicate that the country cannot accommodate more people. The migrant leader responds by adding sugar to the milk, indicating that their presence will sweeten the culture. The Persians stayed in India and, according to our author, spread happiness wherever they went.

The artwork beautifully depicts Persian imagery. I love how Khoa Le frames each page of the story. When the aunt begins, there is a design in the sky. As the story continues, both pages are framed, and the frames become more elaborate as the story unfolds. At the story’s end, subtle images linger in the background. They create a visual message, metaphorically showing how stories can stay with us after we hear them.

I was totally charmed by this book. It is certainly relevant to today, as the world continues to experience large population shifts. The publisher states the book is aimed for preschool to grade three. I would recommend this book for Friends aged 8 to 80. It has received much acclaim, including the 2021 Ohioana Book Award and mentions on the ALSC Notable Children’s Books of 2021, Kirkus Best Books of 2020, and School Library Journal Best Books of 2020. Another version of the Persian tale, “Milk and Sugar” by Richard Martin, is included in Margaret Read MacDonald’s new collection, Kindness Tales: World Folktales to Talk About, which is also an excellent book to include in Friends’ libraries.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this review listed the publisher’s recommended ages (4–8) in the book’s details. It has been updated to more clearly show our own age recommendation, as determined by the reviewer and the young Friends book review editor.

Katie Green is a member of Clearwater (Fla.) Meeting. She is a storyteller, workshop leader, and educator.

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