If you are looking for a book to give your 12 year old (ish) boy (especially if he thinks of himself as rather good at math) that will open his eyes to the unhappy reality of life for a kid like himself in the slums of an Indian city, Saraswati's Way, by Monika Schröder (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 240 pages), is the book you are looking for!
12-year old Akash has always loved numbers--his daydreams are full of patterns and progressions. But he's learned all the village school master can teach him, and there's no money to pay for more education. His father tells him that the future is in the hands of the gods...but Akash can't help but feel that Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, might not mind him doing his best to help himself.
His hopes are dashed when his father dies, and he's sent to work in a stone quarry--it's essentially slavery, and he'll never earn enough to be free. Unwilling to give up hope, he escapes to New Delhi. There he becomes one of the multitude of slum kids, begging and scrounging for a living. Surrounded by kids whose lives are going horribly wrong, Akash realizes that indeed, the path to knowledge won't just fall into his lap--Saraswati's way requires that he learn patience and wisdom before he can achieve his dreams.
Happily, fate does seem to favour him, and the book ends on a hopeful note.
I had wondered from descriptions I'd read if Saraswati might actually play a role, pushing the book fantasy-wards, but she doesn't. Still, with her rich descriptions of Akash's two Indias, the rural and the urban, Schröder brings to life a world that might well seem unbelievable to an American kid, and this I felt was the greatest strength of the book.
Despite the possibly overwhelming setting, there is a simplicity to Schröder's storytelling that works to keep it accessible to a younger reader. The narrative unfolds along an unhurried, linear-path--harking back to fantasy again, the hero faces trials, overcomes them; faces temptations, and realizes that they would lead him from his path, and eventually receives the goddess' favor (or at any rate, is rewarded for his choices). The older reader might find it not entirely believable...but still will cheer for Akash in his struggle!
On the down side, at times Schröder's dialogue felt somewhat stiff, as though she were using it more to talk to the reader than for the characters to talk to each other. And perhaps because of this, I never quite lost myself to the fictional characters. But I think this is something that might be more an issue with grown up readers than with the intended audience (especially the math-loving boys), who might well find this directness works in the books favor.
Speaking of which--although this is a book that could be read by a ten-year old, and Akash feels like a kid, as opposed to a full-fledged teenager, there are difficult and painful things described--drug use, including kids getting high by sniffing glue, homelessness, and the general struggle of life as a slum kid, and one nasty episode in which an older man tries to lure Akash into his home (it's subtle, though, so it would probably go right over the head of many young readers). On the other hand, the book stays clear of the truly, horribly gut-wrenching--Akesh is very lucky indeed--and so it is not the stuff of nightmares. School Library Journal says grades 5-7, Booklist says grades 4-7, and it's listed on Amazon as Young Adult (which means 12 year and up). I say 6th-8th grade; my own math-loving fifth grader isn't ready for it this year, but next year I'll offer it to him....
Other thoughts at Musings of a Book Addict, Tahleen's Mixed-Up Files, Middle Grade Ninja, and Book Aunt
Disclaimer: my copy of the book was gratefully received from its author.