Author: Lynne Kelly
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Friendship, Child Labor, Animal Cruelty, Freedom
Age Range: 4th-6th Grade
Summary: from Goodreads
After ten-year-old Hastin’s family borrows money to pay for his sister’s hospital bill, he leaves his village in northern India to take a job as an elephant keeper and work off the debt. He thinks it will be an adventure, but he isn’t prepared for the cruel circus owner. The crowds that come to the circus see a lively animal who plays soccer and balances on milk bottles, but Hastin sees Nandita, a sweet elephant and his best friend, who is chained when she’s not performing and hurt with a hook until she learns tricks perfectly. Hastin protects Nandita as best as he can, knowing that the only way they will both survive is if he can find a way for them to escape.
In the spirit of Water for Elephants and The One and Only Ivan, Chained portrays a tender, loving relationship between a wild animal and its caretaker. Hastin and Nandita have a bond that transcends species, rooted in their shared desire to be reunited with their families. Set in India, Chained provides young readers with a window into another culture, and into the plight of children living in societies where they are often manipulated and exploited for someone else's financial gain.
When Hastin's sister falls ill, his mother is forced to work as an indentured servant in the home of the wealthy business owner who paid the hefty hospital bill. When Hastin sees the deplorable conditions in which he is living, he hatches a scheme to make his own money, freeing his mother from the cruelty of her "employer". But Hastin gains his mother's freedom at the cost of his own, when he is duped into becoming an elephant keeper at a small circus in another part of the country. Separated from everything he knows, he is forced to participate in the capture and training of a sweet baby elephant that he calls Nandita. Some of the most emotional parts of the book are when Nandita is captured, and her family group tries to find her. Luckily for Hastin and Nandita both, the circus cook is also a retired elephant trainer, who helps Hastin take good care of the young elephant despite her cruel treatment at the hands of the current trainer. Neither Hastin nor Nandita could have survived their captivity without the care of the cook.
Regardless of the treatment he receives, or the length of his servitude, Hastin never loses hope that he will find a way to free himself from bondage and rejoin his family. When the circus owner keeps adding time to his period of service, Hastin realizes that if he does not take matters into his own hands he will never be free. Hastin is brave and compassionate, and selflessly refuses to leave the circus unless he can find a way to free Nandita as well. His connection to the young elephant is a beautiful example for children of the power of loyalty and devotion.
I think that this novel would make a good addition to any elementary unit with a focus on the lives of children around the world, child labor, or animals. There are many cross-curricular connections that could be made, with geography and ecosystems and environmental justice. I plan to use this book next year as part of a "One Book, One School" program in my district, and I hope that the 4th graders who will be reading it find it as satisfying as I did.