Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

Born Behind Bars

Padma Venkatraman, Author 

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Sep. 7, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: India, Prisoners’ families, Homeless persons, Street children, Friendship, Social justice issues, Hope

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Kabir Khan has been in jail since the day he was born because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. Their cellmates are his only friends, and he’s never even met his dad. The one place he feels a little bit free is the prison classroom, where his teacher delights him with stories of the outside world’s wonders.

When the new warden announces that Kabir is too old to stay, he’s suddenly released — without his mom — to fend for himself on the city streets of Chennai. Fortunately, Rani, another street kid, takes him under her wing and helps him eke out a living, even sharing the tree she calls home. Plotting their future is difficult and dangerous in a world that doesn’t value low-caste kids like them, but Rani has enough confidence for two, plus a trusty slingshot that comes in handy for hunting meals and handling bullies. And she has a clever parrot, Jay, that talks.

This isn’t quite the life Kabir dreamed of; still, he’s discovered he’s not the type to give up. Justice needs to be served, and he’s determined to show the world that he — and his mom — deserve a place in it.

Why I like this book:

Padma Venkatraman’s compelling and hopeful novel sheds light on the life of children born to mothers in India’s prisons. Her powerful storytelling and vivid imagery draws readers into Kabir’s sheltered life in the prison and the extraordinary journey he embarks upon to find his family in Bengaluru. His story will touch readers’ hearts.

The setting is culturally rich. Venkatraman is a lyrical writer and there are many poetic turns of phrase. The chapters are short (three pages), which quickly moves the story and is perfect for that slightly younger group of middle-graders and reluctant readers.  For fans of The Bridge Home, a character from the story makes an appearance. 

The plot is dangerous and suspenseful from the moment Kabir leaves the prison. The police release him to a man who claims to be Kabir’s uncle. Something feels “off” from the start, and Kabir has to plan a fast escape from this fake uncle. Kabir meets Rani, a street-smart homeless girl who makes a living telling fortunes — she’s from the Roma community in India. She has a talking parrot, Jay, perched on her shoulder. Jay offers many moments of comic relief. Rani shares her home with Kabir — a Banyan tree inside the gates of a haunted mansion. Kabir discovers he can use his voice to earn money and his instincts to judge the people he can trust on the outside.  

Venkatraman exposes India’s broken justice system and it’s impact on children and families who are considered lower caste. They live in extreme poverty and are forgotten. She also shows the tension that exists between the Hindus and Muslims, and problems over water shortages due to climate change and draught. 

Growing up in India, Venkatraman’s memories of starving children provide the inspiration for her novels, Born Behind Bars and The Bridge Home.  Her stories are well-researched and she draws her stories from the tales of the children she meets while doing volunteer work with her mother at respectable children’s homes and schools. Most important, I love that she writes about a culture she knows so well. I hope we see more uplifting novels from her in the future.

Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end to learn more about Born Behind Bars.

Padma Venkatraman was born in India and became an American after living in five countries and working as an oceanographer. She is also the author of The Bridge Home, A Time to Dance, Island’s End and Climbing the Stairs. She lives in Rhode Island. Visit her at her website, and on Twitter: @padmatv, Instagram: Venkatraman.padma

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a purchased copy.


About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

13 thoughts on “Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

  1. I’m pleased you said this is a story of hope, Patricia, because it seems quite sad – a situation we wish wasn’t true but know that it is for many. I think books this help help to broaden our understanding of the world and the injustices in it. Only through that knowledge can we seek to change. That’s why books like this are important.


  2. Such a sad but hopeful story. I hope to read this one soon. The setup of living with your mom in jail reminds me of ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T COOK. The rest of these plot are totally different but equally heartbreaking. Thanks for featuring it today on MMGM.


    • Haven’t read that story you mentioned. It sounds interesting. You know Padma’s stories of children in India are always compelling, but offer so much hope. These are important stories for MG students to know about how other kids live.

      We adopted our 13-year-old son from an orphanage in India. He was one of the lucky ones. Very successful man today.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad there is some hope in this sad story. When I was in India in the 1980’s, I saw so much extreme poverty and kids living on the streets, I’m not surprised that things portrayed in this book are going on. Thanks for featuring it this week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This book is important for many reasons. I didn’t know about kids born in prisons and living there. I didn’t know about the conflict between the Hindus and Muslims. But it is a hopeful story for readers.


  4. This definitely sounds like a painful and powerful read, so I’m impressed that it also manages to be uplifting! I haven’t had the chance to read any of Venkatraman’s other books, but she sounds like an excellent author. I appreciate you sharing this thoughtful review!


    • I love her stories of India, because we adopted a 13-year-old son from India in the 80s. He would have been released to the streets at 14 and his life would have been very different. He looked about 10 years old when he arrived. So I have a soft spot for her work. My first encounter with her work was with a very different book “A Time to Dance,” which really introduced readers to the culture. I hope you have time to look up her work.

      Liked by 1 person

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