When the tragic deaths of his parents leave a young boy named Harish alone to fend for himself and his sisters, he does what he knows how to do best—dance, like the female Rajasthani dancers he watches. But the Thar Desert, where he lives, is not a place where lines blur easily between what is expected of men and women.
Harish doesn’t feel at home inside that strict binary. Golden streaks of joy encircle him as he is captivated by musicians and dancers swaying across the screen. His feet tap, and his fingers sway—but only “quietly, so no one sees.” After donning a ghagra, a choli and bangles on his arms and ankles, the boy “is shiny and / glittery and / NEW.” Then the boy begins to dance and slowly, delightfully transform into a swirling goddess.
Desert Queen is based on the true story of Queen Harish (Harish Kumar), an Indian drag performer known as the “Whirling Desert Queen of Rajasthan.” It’s hard to know what is more praiseworthy in this picture book: Jyoti Rajan Gopal’s spare poetry, which lends itself to the rhythmic sway of the dance it celebrates; or Svabhu Kohli’s exquisitely detailed illustrations, which are rooted in Indian cultural heritage and as bold and daring as the subject they honor. The boy’s initial timidity is particularly striking against backdrops that are anything but quiet.
The story doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of Harish’s life: Jeers and taunts are depicted that cause shining tears to flow. But this grief is shown alongside joy, and readers will rejoice as Harish finds a space as “not / Boy OR girl . . . But / fluid / flowing / like a dance / in between / and all around.” Together, Gopal and Kohli pay homage to a genderqueer hero who left the world far too quickly. Desert Queen is a fearlessly triumphant depiction of the wonder, magic and sparkle of dance.