"With authenticity, insight, and compassion, Perkins delivers another culturally rich coming-of-age novel." —★ School Library Journal Starred Review

"A graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship." —★ Publishers Weekly Starred Review 

"First and foremost, a compelling story."Boston Globe

"A tender tale of parallel sorrows and dreams." Sacramento Bee

"Thrilling jungle survival story." Stanford Magazine
Bamboo People

Get it an Indie Bookseller
Published by Charlesbridge

Chiko isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family's home and bamboo fields.

Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion as each boy is changed by unlikely friendships formed under extreme circumstances.

This coming-of-age novel  takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Narrated by two fifteen-year-old boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma, Bamboo People explores the nature of violence, power, and prejudice.

Junior Library Guild Selection

Starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal

Bank Street Readaloud For Older Children

ALA APALA Honor Book

Indies Choice Honor Book of the Year for Young Adults

ALA Top Ten Book in Best Fiction for Young Adults

International Reading Association Notable Book for a Global Society

A Book Page Top Ten Book

CCBC Recommended Book

Nominated for the Christian Schools Association's Lamplighter Award

State Awards: 

Nominated for the Massachusetts Book Award, Pennsylvania's Keystone to Reading Book Award, Tennessee's Volunteer State Book Award, Indiana's Young Hoosier Book Award, Maine's Student Book Award, and Illinois' Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award.

Now available in paperback and as an audio book from Audible.com, narrated by actor Jonathan Davis!

Why I Wrote The Book

I've been writing novels featuring South Asian girls for years—Indian-Americans, Indians, Pakistani-Americans, Bangladeshis. It was high time to write about a guy. Bamboo People, set along the Thai-Burma border, features not one male protagonist, but two.

For three years my husband, children, and I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. While we were there we visited the Karenni refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. I was astounded at how the Karenni kept their hopes up despite incredible loss, still dreaming and talking of the day when they would once again become a free people. I was impressed, too, by how creatively they used bamboo. Homes, bridges, transportation, weapons, food, storage, irrigation—all these and more depended on the resilient, lavish, and ecologically efficient bamboo plant. I began to think about that plant as an excellent symbol for the peoples of that region.

During that time I also began to understand how tough life is for Burmese teenagers. Only about a third are enrolled in school, and most can’t find jobs. According to international human rights organizations, Burma has the largest number of child soldiers in the world, and that number is growing. These young soldiers are taught that the Karenni and other ethnic groups are the cause of the problems in their country and are rewarded with money and food if they burn, destroy, torture, and kill ethnic minorities.

What would you do if your mother was hungry and your only option to feed her was to fight in the army? What about if you saw soldiers burning your home and farm while you ran for your life? Wouldn’t you be terrified, like Chiko? Wouldn’t you be angry, like Tu Reh?

In my travels far and wide, I’ve learned two things: all people feel powerful negative emotions, but we all face choices when it comes to acting on them.

I hope you connect with Tu Reh and Chiko as you read Bamboo People. If you want to promote peace and democracy in Burma or help refugees fleeing from that country, please browse the sidebar where I provide resources, an educator’s guide, and suggestions for involvement.

Photo courtesy of jackol, via Creative Commons

A Brief History of Burma

Slightly smaller than Texas in size, the country of Burma shares borders with India, China, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand, and the Bay of Bengal. It’s a land of diversity, with over one hundred languages, several religions, fertile plains, and rugged highlands. The country was once described as the “rice bowl of Asia” and enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Southeast Asia.

Sadly that didn’t last. Today about ninety percent of Burma’s people live at or below the poverty line, and the country’s health system is ranked second worst in the world. About ten percent of children die before the age of five, and the literacy rate has been plummeting each year.

How did the region’s “rice bowl” become a place of suffering, disease, and hunger? It’s a sad story of injustice and corruption. Once ruled by Britain, Burma became an independent parliamentary democracy in 1948. Ethnic groups like the Shan, the Karen, and the Wa wanted to keep their independence and avoid being controlled by the Burmese majority. Despite tension and strife, the country survived as a representative government for fourteen years. In 1962, however, military leaders murdered the elected leaders and took control of the country.

Things went from bad to worse—the army shut down free elections, took over newspapers and businesses, and clamped down on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. People tried to resist, but the military brutally crushed student and worker demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s. The government tortured and imprisoned anyone brave enough to speak out. At the same time ethnic groups along the country’s frontiers continued to struggle for independence. To fight these “insurgents,” as they were labeled, the government began forcing young Burmese men into the army.

On the eighth of August (8/8/88), hundreds of thousands of people gathered peacefully and demanded that the military regime step down in favor of an elected civilian government. But the nonviolent protest didn’t work. Soldiers opened fire on crowds of unarmed marchers, killing thousands, and arrested and tortured thousands more.

Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of one of the first leaders of Burma who had been killed in 1968, helped to form a political party called National League for Democracy (NLD). The military government put her under house arrest in 1989 and threw many of the top senior NLD officials in prison. Even when the people voted resoundingly for Suu Kyi and the NLD in a 1990 election, the military refused to step down and seat the new leaders. The government became progressively more repressive. When cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May 2008, the government initially blocked international aid and put more people in jail without just cause. By the end of 2009, the total number of political prisoners in Burma was over two thousand.

The military makes money by controlling industries like mining, logging, oil, transport, manufacturing, apparel, and electricity, and by regulating exports and foreign investment. What happens to all that income? Half is spent on the military and next to nothing on health care and education. And the rulers are lining their own pockets, of course. While the elite live in luxury, the vast majority of Burmese don’t know if they’ll be able to feed their families tomorrow.

As for the ethnic groups, the army tortures and kills minorities, uses them for hard labor, and burns their villages. Thousands of people hide in the jungle as internally displaced people, while some flee across the border to Thailand to seek shelter in refugee camps.

Over fifty thousand refugees representing different minority groups in Burma have been resettled in other countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Norway since 2004. The Karenni, however, were not allowed into the United States until 2009. At the time of this writing, the situation for the majority of Karenni still in Burma or Thailand remains grim.

On November 13, 2010, under international scrutiny after a questionable "election" where the ruling party won most of the seats, the military goverment released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Immediately after the election, even as news of Suu Kyi's release spread through the world, the Burmese Army stepped up attacks against the Karen people along the border. That move by the goverment, sadly, received hardly any coverage by the international media. 

The Tatmadaw military staged a coup in February 2021. In response, former lawmakers and activists formed a shadow government and mobilized fighting forces across the country. The military has responded with a brutal crackdown on opposition forces and protesters. People are suffering intensely. The economy shrank by nearly 20 percent in 2021. Additionally, the health care system collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions are hungry, and tens of thousands have fled to other parts of Myanmar or across the borders into India and Thailand.

The military’s brutal crackdown on dissent and widespread abuses in the conflict have drawn condemnation from the United Nations, foreign governments, and rights organizations. In the initial aftermath of the coup, military forces shot live ammunition at civilian protesters and into people’s homes. By late 2021, the military was destroying entire villages believed to support the opposition, massacring both civilians and opposition fighters. At least 1,500 people have been killed by the military, with likely many more, according to Thailand-based nonprofit ​​Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). The Tatmadaw has arrested more than eight thousand people, including journalists, medical workers, and opposition politicians. 

Fighting and terrible suffering of the people continue within Burma, even though these events are not in our news as much. We continue to pray for our friends within that country, and hope for their freedom and safety.

What's In A Name? Burma Vs. Myanmar

You may not find the country of Burma listed in some books printed after 1989. That year the military government changed the country’s official English name from “the Union of Burma” to “the Union of Myanmar.” Although the United Nations switched to Myanmar, the USA, the UK, and Canada are among the nations who refused to recognize the new name.

As I’m writing this note, newspapers and magazines are also split. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and CNN use Myanmar, while the Washington Post and Time use Burma. For Bamboo People I chose to use Burma because in the Burmese language, "Myanma" is the written, literary name of the country, while "Bama" is the spoken name of the country.

An Update on Education in Burma

Teacher's Guide and Discussion Questions

Download an Activity and Discussion Guide — perfect for an upper elementary or middle school classroom, boy or girl scout troop, library, or book club. Also, feel free to use this youtube video of the author reading.

Mitali Perkins reading an excerpt of BAMBOO PEOPLE

And here are some brilliant discussion questions created by librarian Kelley McDaniel of Portland Middle School:

1. What do you know about Burma?

2.  Look at the map of Burma and read A Brief History of Burma, Why I Wrote Bamboo People, and Burma vs. Myanmar. Now that you know a little bit about Burma, what do you wonder or want to know more about Burma … ?

3. When Chiko’s father was taken, he called out, “Take care of your mother, Chiko.” (p.6) and although Chiko replied that he would, he does not think that over the four months that have passed, 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 failed to? Why?

4. Initially, Chiko sees Tai as uneducated but realizes that Tai has knowledge and skills that have enabled him to survive, whereas Tai initially thinks that Chiko’s knowledge and skills are not very practical. (p.56) Who are you more like: Chiko or Tai and what is the value in having the knowledge and skills that you have? Would you rather have the other knowledge and skills? Why or why not?

5. (p.82) “It’s done. Tai is going to confinement and I’m not. So why do I feel like the one who’s condemned?” What do you think of Chiko now? What do you think of Tai? Have you ever been in a situation like this? Which character were you and how did you feel?

6. (p.123) “Send Tai to Yangon instead of me.” Why do you think Chiko made this decision? How do you think he felt? What do you think Tai thought and felt? What do you think the other boys watching and listening thought and felt?

7. Do you think the Captain especially targeted Chiko and Tai? Why or why not?

8. What are some of the things that bamboo is used for? Do you use bamboo for anything?

9. Do you agree that, “[a] man full of hatred is like a gun … he can be used for only one purpose, to kill”? Why or why not?

10. Tu Reh’s father, Peh, says “I won’t command you my son. A Karenni man must decide for himself. Leave him for the animals. End his life now. Or carry him to the healer. It’s your choice.” (p.149) Do you think Peh wants his son to make a certain choice? Why or why not?

11. The Grandfather reads a well-known passage from the Bible (pp.170-171), Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

There is a right time for everything:
A time to be
A time to kill, a time to heal;
A time to cry, a time to laugh;
A time to grieve, a time to dance;
A time for scattering stones, a time for gathering stones;
A time to embrace, a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to find, a time to lose;
A time for keeping; a time for throwing away;
A time to tear, a time to repair;
A time to be silent, a time to speak;
A time for loving, a time for hating;
A time for war, a time for peace.

This prayer was made into a song in the 1960s (written by Pete Seeger, but made famous by The Byrds) What does this prayer/song mean to you? Does it remind you of anything?

12. Why do you think the people in the refugee camp refer to Chiko as “your soldier” when they are talking to Tu Reh? Do you think that Chiko is Tu Reh’s soldier? Why or why not?

13. Why do think the book is called Bamboo People? Do you think that is a good title? Why or why not?


"... Perkins seamlessly blends cultural, political, religious, and philosophical context into her story, which is distinguished by humor, astute insights into human nature, and memorable characters ... As Chiko and Tu Reh wrestle with prejudices of culture and class, Perkins delivers a graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship under untenable circumstances." — ★ Publishers Weekly, starred review

"With authenticity, insight, and compassion, Perkins delivers another culturally rich coming-of-age novel ... Chiko and Tu Reh are dynamic narrators whose adolescent angst and perspectives permeate the trauma of their daily lives. Dialogue and descriptions are vibrant; characters are memorable; cultural characteristics are smoothly incorporated; and the story is well paced. – ★ School Library Journal, starred review, Gerry Larson, Durham School of the Arts, NC

"Writing in a present tense that adds urgency to the story, Perkins draws a persuasive picture of contemporary Burma/Myanmar ... differing perspectives, as well as their commonalities, make the drama as moral as it is physical, and rich with action." — Roger Sutton, Horn Book

"First and foremost, a compelling story." — Jan Gardner, Off the Shelf, Boston Globe 

"A tender tale of parallel sorrows and dreams." Judy Green, Sacramento Bee

"In a time when every other novel for kids is just a reiteration of an idea we’ve seen done a hundred ways before, here we have at least one book that knows that being important and being enjoyable are simply opposite sides of the same coin ... Exciting, tense, often beautiful, and containing a moral without whapping you upside the head with it, Mitali Perkins yet again hits it out of the park. Even the fantasy fans like I was are going to find this an exciting ride. A book that continually keeps you guessing." — Elizabeth Bird, NYPL Children's Librarian and School Library Journal blogger

"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, more 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

"A Burmese boy soldier and an ethnic Karenni refugee narrate a thrilling jungle survival story about war along the Myanmar border. In an unsparing novel for middle-grade readers, Perkins sorts out the boys’ complicated feelings about revenge, justice, freedom and loyalty. The title metaphor honors the strength and flexibility that individuals need when their simplest hopes are thwarted by geopolitical hatred." — Stanford Magazine

"While displacement camps and military maneuvers are not the trappings of your standard touchy-feely 'do the right thing' tale, they bring a sense of hard-edged reality to Mitali Perkins’ Bamboo People, an intriguing and insightful story about two boys learning how to become men in the midst of chaos." — BookPage

"Perkins must be one of the most readable young adult writers alive, and her excellent characterizations temper the gravitas of the tale without diminishing the very real plight of the communities concerned." — Niranjana Iyer, Asian Review of Books

"Mitali Perkins has written something here that is so fine, so rare, so beautiful, that I am loath to move on to another book too quickly because I want to think and remember and savor this exquisite story ... This is such a powerful and emotional story. Told in Chiko's and Tu Reh's voices, the chapters are short which keeps the story moving and will keep readers at all levels engaged. This is a beautiful tale of faith and hope. I am pondering now the best way to booktalk it. Kids MUST find this book." — Bookmoot

"Perkins, a gifted storyteller and careful researcher, gives voice to both Chiko and Tu Reh in consecutive narratives that describe Chiko's training-camp ordeal and Tu Reh's efforts to help support the Karenni resistance. Liberally woven into the story are themes of hope, courage, friendship, and grace, making the novel an enjoyable read despite the grim topic. The book gets top marks for bringing the reader into a country with which relatively few people have any real familiarity or understanding." — Yana Rodgers, EconKids

"The story is totally gripping. I couldn’t want to see what would happen next and read a few pages whenever I had a spare moment — to the point where I would pull out the book in the elevator, on a 5-minute bus ride, even while I waited by the photocopier. Yes, the story is THAT suspenseful." — Kids Momo

"Elegantly written story, with characters that feel completely real." — E. Kristin Anderson

"An absolutely amazing book!  I’m not sure I’ll be able to adequately express just how much I loved it and how important I think it is.  It’s impossible to read this book and not be affected.  I felt a range of emotions from anger and sadness to joy and hope." — Bermuda Onion 

"Perkins excels at depicting foreign cultures through sounds, scents, and tastes ... There are no long paragraphs of description here, instead readers are treated to details woven into the story that bring the entire book to life. This is done with a skill that makes it seem effortless. Her characterizations are also done with the same grace ... The darker parts of battle and imprisonment are dealt with obliquely, allowing readers to bring their own level of understanding to the atrocities being committed.  Again, this is a testimony to the skill of Perkins’ writing. Highly recommended, this book takes the horrors of war and packages them in a piercingly beautiful story. Appropriate for ages 12-15." — Menasha Public Library

"Hits just the right chord for middle-schoolers." — Librarian Sharon Colvin, Boston Globe / Your Town

"(Perkins) gives both voracious readers and reluctant ones alike a chance to learn from and about the conflict from both a child soldier’s and a refugee’s story simultaneously ... At the same time, those who are more familiar with the conflict in Burma will definitely find some amazing characters and a moving narrative to boot." — YA Bookshelf

"I loved both narrators. I loved seeing the human side of war. Bamboo People is a very compelling read." — Becky Laney, Becky's Book Reviews

"Full of heartfelt language that describes both the daily life and the hardships of the Burmese and Karenni people." — Librarian by Day

"As an adult, I found Bamboo People to be an excellent read. The characters are interesting, and grow over the course of the book. The conflicts the characters face feel genuine. I avidly read the second half of the book in one sitting. I used to read that way a lot (science fiction, Tolstoy, etc.), but I haven't in a long while. Bamboo People reminded me of why I love to read." — Explore Dance

"This fascinating story shines a light on the desperate situation of those affected by current Burmese policies and will help educate young readers about that situation in particular and the vagaries and confusion surrounding conflict in general. The characters, Perkins’ first male protagonists, are very thoughtful, easy to engage with, and surprisingly similar ... This juxtaposition is absolutely brilliant and illustrates the point that war makes enemies out of people who, in a different context, would become the best of friends." — PaperTigers.org

"I was transported to Burma and experienced the lives of two child soldiers and their families who are on opposite sides of the conflict there. What an excellent book for all of us adults to read ourselves and then to discuss with children in the upper elementary grades, the target audience for the book." — Carol Rasco, CEO, Reading is Fundamental

"...A story that invites discussion of the realities of warfare rooted in long-standing antagonisms and unreasoning hatred of 'the other.' A particularly good book for classroom use." — Booklist

"The author paints war in all of its gradations of gray, including the people who influence those decisions, both powerful and seemingly powerless. Readers will leave this moving story—half from Chiko's first-person narrative, and half narrated by Tu Reh—with the understanding that everyone has a choice, no matter how dire the circumstances." — Shelf Awareness

"In this classic coming of age story in a setting almost unimaginable to the American reader, Perkins tells the story of Burma at war ... Through the eyes of these two young men we experience violence, prejudice and the abuse of power as well as what courage and heroism really mean." — Shirley Mullin, Bookseller, Kids Ink, Indianapolis, IN, recommending the book as a Summer Indie Next Pick.

"The characters are just right for the book’s purpose, namely to illuminate an ethnic minority military rebellion against an oppressive majority military dictatorship ... The book would make a great vehicle for class discussion, as its themes of oppression and rebellion are played out again and again, from Burma to Bolivia, from Afghanistan to Star Wars." — Carol Chittenden, Bookseller, Eight Cousins

"I found a quiet corner here today to sit and begin reading the book. Before I knew it, the time had flown past and I was nearing the end of the story ... Perkins gives readers a glimpse into what it means to be a hero. As Tolkien observes: a hero does not return home unscarred. Readers will not return from this book without a new sense of the geopolitics of modern day Burma (Myanmar). War and the effects of war have long been themes explored by books. Perkins offers tweens and teens a chance to ponder these global themes from a developmentally appropriate perspective." — Teri Lesesne, aka Professor Nana

"Profound, good stuff." — Sherry Early, blogger and homeschooling parent, Semicolon

"Perkins gives engaging, real voices to her characters who pull you along with them on their often-terrifying ride through a tense situation ... Excellent for reluctant and guy readers." — Lizz Zitron, Librarian

"The voice is the magic of this story. It is first person, present tense. It is deceptively simple. It seemed to be setting me up for a much gentler story, but soon that simple and honest voice began to speak of terrible things ... In fact, as the worlds of Chiko and Tu Reh descend further and further into madness, as fear and anger grow into bravery and compassion and friendship, this simplicity of voice seems to grow even more fitting. This is elegant storytelling." — Bruce Wishart

"The story was, as I expected, very original. I also liked the style of writing, which I think will appeal to guy readers too. A highly recommended read for every young reader!" — Marjolein Book Blog

"An excellent and compelling book set in modern Burma ... The story resonates with the universal themes of honor and friendship that are easily accessible to upper elementary and middle school readers." — Linda Griset, Librarian, Pike School, Andover, Ma

"Bamboo People is a special book, one I'd like to see children read to learn about other cultures, to understand the devastation of power and conflict, to believe in courage and friendship." — Vivian Mahoney

The author with three young Karenni newly arrived in Portland, Maine:

BookExpo America Podcast Interview

Perkins Shines Light on Burmese Conflict in Bamboo People
Bamboo PeopleMitali Perkins
In this podcast episode, Mitali tells us about her new book, Bamboo PeopleBamboo People is a coming-of-age novel that takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Narrated by two teenagers on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma, Bamboo People explores the nature of violence, power, and prejudice.
Perkins will speak at the BEA 2010 Children’s Author Breakfast, Wednesday, May 26 at 8:00 AM. She will be joined by Cory Doctorow, author of For the Win; and Richard Peck, author of Three Quarters Dead. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and author of Helping Hand Books: Emily’s First Day at School will be the Master of Ceremonies.

Save Five Lives in Burma

If your classroom, scout troop, or book group wants to help, why not raise $50 through a bake sale, car wash, or other brilliant idea and send it to Partners World? $50 can save five lives — providing rice, a cooking pot, a machete, a lighter, and a plastic tarp to boys like Tu Reh, Chiko, and their families. If you raised the money and sent it, write me (mitaliperk@yahoo.com) and I'll list you here along with other groups who have participated.

Pronunciation Guide and Glossary

  • Chiko (Chee-Koh): a 15-year old Burmese doctor's son
  • Lei (Lay): Chiko's next-door neighbor and secret crush
  • Tai (Tie): a savvy street boy
  • Sawati (Sah-wah-tee): Tai's sister
  • Bindu (Bin-dew): a good-natured but not-so-smart Burmese soldier
  • U Tha Din (Oo-thah-deen): the Sergeant in charge of the army training camp
  • Tu Reh (Too-ray): a 16-year old Karenni boy forced to flee his home for a Thai refugee camp
  • Peh (Pay): What Tu Reh calls his father
  • Mua (Moo-a): what Tu Reh calls his mother
  • Bu Reh (Boo-ray): a refugee camp leader
  • Sa Reh (Sah-ray): Tu Reh's friend in the camp and Bu Reh's son
  • Nya Meh (Neeya-may): a girl with the gift of healing
  • Ree Meh (Ree-may): the healer's younger sister and Tu Reh's dream girl
  • Ana Meh (Anna-may): Tu Reh's little sister
  • Yangon (Yan-gone): big city in Burma, also known as Rangoon
  • Karenni (Kah-ren-nee): an ethnic group living in Burma who speak a different language
  • Tanaka (tah-nah-kah): a paste made with water mixed with tanaka tree wood
  • Longyi (lone-jee): a long cloth that Burmese guys wear from the waist down