I started Girl in Translation when I got on the bus in the morning, and finished it this evening at 11:30pm. This semi-autobiographical tale (based on...moreI started Girl in Translation when I got on the bus in the morning, and finished it this evening at 11:30pm. This semi-autobiographical tale (based on author Jean Kwok's childhood) is riveting: eleven year old Kimberly Chang moves from Hong Kong to Brooklyn with her mother, only to work day and night in a sweatshop and live in an apartment with no heat and roaches. Their poverty is jaw-dropping: Kimberly and her mother make clothes out of found stuffed animals, keep the oven on day and night to attempt to keep the house warm, and emerge from their shift at the sweatshop 16 hours later covered in dust and sweat.
Of course, I didn't merely enjoy Girl in Translation for the shock factor of reading about the protagonist's destitute life. Jean Kwok writes a powerful and poignant story, and the writing is superb. I loved nearly all of the book, but feel conflicted about the ending. (No spoilers.) The ending, which is something of an epilogue, had a few twists (in that I wasn't sure what was happening), but I was disappointed in some aspects of how Kimberly's life turned out and the way that Kwok wrote them. One thing I want to note, though, is that I loved how Kwok mixed up words so that the reader could get the experience that Kimberly was having of not understanding what people were saying. For a similar technique/writing style, try An Na's A Step from Heaven, which is also wonderfully written, but not as emotional.
This genre happens to be right up my alley: strong woman of color rises above seemingly insurmountable obstacles, in which male characters are not a major part of the story. I call this genre "Oprah's Book Club-esque." If you like this genre, you'll love this book too.
Read if you like: Amy Tan, strong female characters, characters who overcome obstacles, Asian-American fiction Alex Award 2011 winner(less)
Lucy Wu is getting ready for sixth grade, which promises to be the best year ever. She's planning on trying out for captain of the basketball team, an...moreLucy Wu is getting ready for sixth grade, which promises to be the best year ever. She's planning on trying out for captain of the basketball team, and will have plenty of time to practice free throws with her best friend Madison. Her know-it-all sister Regina, who speaks perfect Chinese, is pretty, and gets good grades, is moving away to college, leaving Lucy with her own room. Lucy, a budding interior designer, is looking forward to this immensely until she finds out that she will be getting a new roommate: her deceased Po Po's (grandma) long-lost sister, visiting for several month from China. It's like The Hundred Secret Senses for kids!
I'm always on the lookout for good Asian-American/Chinese-American books, and The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu is one of the better ones. It portrays Chinese-American characters in non-stereotypical ways (basketball star?) while still injecting Chinese-American culture (including a sprinkling of Mandarin). However, I'd recommend Millicent Min, Girl Genius over this book, because it has great laugh-out-loud moments (which I'm a sucker for). Also, The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu has kind of one-note characters with not a lot of character development, except for Lucy and her great-aunt.
Ages 9-12 (should appeal to that tween demographic)(less)
Since I'm a big fan of American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang's wonderful award-winning graphic novel about being Chinese-American, I was excited to le...moreSince I'm a big fan of American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang's wonderful award-winning graphic novel about being Chinese-American, I was excited to learn that Yang had another book coming out this summer. Level Up is the story of Dennis Ouyang, a Chinese-American young man who longs to play video games but is denied them by his parents and told to focus on his studies. He loses his father at the end of high school, and immediately goes out to purchase a Nintendo. From that point on, he is focused on nothing but video games, which he is very good at, but loses sight of his studies, and gets kicked out of college his junior year. Four guardian angels, characters from the 8th grade graduation card his father had given to him, come to his aid and turn him around to the point that he ends up in medical school, studying to be a gastroenterologist. Then he begins to question whether or not being a doctor was truly his destiny...
It may be unfair to compare Level Up with American Born Chinese, but such comparisons are inevitable. The style and storytelling are very similar in the two books (except that Level Up tells just one story, while American Born Chinese tells three intertwined ones). I appreciate the way that Yang writes about the Chinese-American experience. At first it seems stereotypical... a story about a Chinese-American man choosing between video games (geeky) and medical school (nerdy). But Yang turns this into a thoughtful and entertaining examination of how our family affects our choices, and whether or not that's even a bad thing. Like in American Born Chinese, the ghosts turn out to not be what they seem, but in a slightly ludicrous/campy way. Like American Born Chinese, Level Up is a coming of age tale about being Chinese-American, but has a pretty wide appeal--not just for teens and Chinese-Americans.
Level Up just doesn't have the level of cultural transcendence that American Born Chinese did, and a big part of that, in my eyes, are Thien Pham's illustrations. I'm not sure why Yang didn't illustrate Level Up himself, as he did American Born Chinese, because I loved the high-contrast, slick, simple illustrations in ABC. Pham's illustrations in Level Up are simple, but have a dull palate, all grays and beige. Also, the watercolor style doesn't look as refined as ABC's, although I got used to it midway through.
In all, Level Up is more of a minor work from Yang, an intriguing introductory work from Pham, and a decent quick (~30 min) read.
Ages 15 and up (there isn't really mature content or anything, that's just the age that I think will be interested in this book).(less)
I try to read award winners and books getting a lot of buzz, even if I don't think I'd like them. But I put off reading Inside Out and Back Again beca...moreI try to read award winners and books getting a lot of buzz, even if I don't think I'd like them. But I put off reading Inside Out and Back Again because I really can't stand novels written in verse. In my mind, why write a novel in verse, when it seems so much more effective to write in prose? I read an interview with author Thanhha Lai, in which she said that she chose to write in verse because it is similar to how Vietnamese is spoken. Having the vaguest of familiarity with Asian languages, that does make sense, and I was surprised by how much of the plot was effectively told through verse.
Ha (sorry, I don't know how to use diacritical marks in goodreads, I don't think, so imagine an accent over the 'a') is a ten year old living in Saigon. She is poor, as a result of the ongoing war, but she still enjoys eating papayas and toasted coconut. However, the war grows every closer, until Ha, her mother (her father is missing in action) and her brothers are forced to flee the country and head to a refugee camp. After weeks there, they are sent to Alabama, where they must learn about their strange new land, where there are no papayas. Inside Out and Back Again takes place in the span of one year, from Tet to Tet (the Vietnamese name for Lunar New Year).
Thanhha Lai accomplishes something really neat here; each poem can stand alone, but they all serve to tell the story. I especially liked the chapters about learning English. For example, "Passing Time:"
I study the dictionary because grass and trees do not grow faster just because I stare.
I look up Jane: not listed
sees: to eyeball something
Spot: a stain
run: to move really fast
Meaning: ____eyeballs stain move.
I throw the dictionary down and ask Brother Quang
Jane is a name, not in the dictionary.
Spot is a common name for a dog.
(Girl named) Jane sees (dog named) Spot run.
I can't read a baby book.
Who will believe I was reading Nhat Linh?
But then, who here knows who he is?
Lai tells this story with a great mix of humor and homesickness. She really portrays the cultural dissonance of being Vietnamese immigrants in Alabama well. I read that this is based on Lai's personal story (but condensed into the span of a year, and six brothers turned into three). I don't know if I'd continue to seek out other novels in verse, but I liked this one a lot!
National Book Award winner (Young People's Literature category), 2011(less)
I always like reading new genres, and meta-folktale is a new one for me. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the story of Minli, a poor girl with liv...moreI always like reading new genres, and meta-folktale is a new one for me. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the story of Minli, a poor girl with lives with her Ma and Ba by Fruitless Mountain in China. As the name would imply, the land they live on is barren, and they are very poor. Minli is still happy, and loves to sit at her father's feet and hear the Chinese folktales he is so skilled at telling, but Minli's mother's sighs grow great over how poor they are. One day, Minli goes to the market with only a few coins, and decides to buy a goldfish instead of food. Minli's mother grows angry with her, complaining that their fortune will never change. Remembering Ba's stories about the old man on the moon, who will answer any question, Minli decides to leave Fruitless Mountain to ask the old man on the moon the question of how to change her fortune. Along the way, she meets many characters, like a poor orphan boy with a buffalo, a dragon who was born from a painting and can't fly, and even the king.
So how is this "meta-folktale?" Well, the main story (about Minli) is told in the style of a Chinese folktale, with traditional Chinese folktales woven throughout. It actually took me a while to figure out that these were real Chinese folktales retold by Grace Lin, because they fit really well into the story.
I listened to this on audiobook, thinking that since it's a folktale (and thus, part of an oral tradition), it would translate well to audiobook, but I didn't like it at all, and will not be listening to Lin's follow-up, Starry River of the Sky on audiobook (but I do plan to read it). The narrator and the format of the book are the type where you need to be hanging on every single word, which doesn't lend itself to changing lanes and the like. I had to listen to each disc a couple of times at least to make sure I got everything, so I didn't feel as much like I enjoyed the story. Plus, I just read that Lin has full-color illustrations in the book, so I guess I missed out on that.
Lady Hahn and Her Seven Friends is a retelling of a classical Korean folktale. Lady Hahn is a seamstress who has seven friends: Mrs. Ruler, Newlywed S...moreLady Hahn and Her Seven Friends is a retelling of a classical Korean folktale. Lady Hahn is a seamstress who has seven friends: Mrs. Ruler, Newlywed Scissors, Young Bride Needle, Young Bride Red Thread, Old Lady Thimble, Young Lady Flatiron, and Little Miss Iron. Each of the seven friends boast about their worth, and how important they are to getting a shirt sewn. Annoyed, Lady Hahn snaps at them, telling them that in fact SHE is the most important of them all. But when the seven friends decide to run away, she realizes how important they really are, and they reunite in appreciation of one another.
It's a cute story, with colorful illustrations (each of the seven friends are Korean women shaped like thread, scissors, etc.). I'd recommend it for API Heritage month or just a good friendship tale.
Katie Takeshima has always looked up to her older sister, Lynn. Lynn gets straight As, compared to Katie's straight Cs, and is beautiful, with her per...moreKatie Takeshima has always looked up to her older sister, Lynn. Lynn gets straight As, compared to Katie's straight Cs, and is beautiful, with her perfect skin, and long silky hair. Since both of their parents work long hours trying to provide for their family, Katie and Lynn are all each other has, best friends and sisters. When their family moves from Iowa to a small town in Georgia, Katie and Lynn are ostracized at school and stared at in their community because they are Japanese-American. It is Lynn who explains the stares and the racism to Katie, and her parents who teach her to hold her head up high. But when Lynn becomes sick, and her family begins to fall apart, Katie must take up the mantle and be the kira-kira (glittering), hope to her family.
I didn't intend to, but I somehow ended up reading a few coming-of-age stories in a row: Olive's Ocean, Bless Me, Ultima (review forthcoming), and Kira-Kira. It reminded me how much I love this genre. There's so much emotional depth and self-reflection that translates to beautiful, thoughtful writing (when done well!) that I love. Kira-Kira is a sad book (and the Newbery committee does seem to favor sad books!), but it's beautiful, managing to be quite and reflective while a lot actually does happen. Cynthia Kadohata captures these jewel-like moments, full of beauty and sadness. It's a beautiful book, and the descriptions of the poverty that Katie and Lynn's family go through, as well as Lynn's illness, will be eye-opening for children/teens.
Speaking of audience, Kira-Kira is the first children's book written by a primarily adult author, winner of the Newbery medal, and cataloged in my library as a young adult book, so I wasn't sure what the audience would be. Although the protagonist starts at age 4 and ends around age 12, this reads to me like a young adult novel, or maybe late "middle grade." I had thought that this was historical fiction, and it sounds like it, just from the descriptions of setting, characters, etc. but as I read through, I noticed that there weren't the identifying features of historical fiction. For one thing, I couldn't identify what time period this was supposed to be set in, and it was never mentioned. But there is a feel of looking back, and of this being a different time.
I wasn't quite as taken with Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as some people, although I did still like it in a "folk-tale-side-of-an-Amy...moreI wasn't quite as taken with Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as some people, although I did still like it in a "folk-tale-side-of-an-Amy Tan-novel-for-kids" kind of way. Admittedly, a lot of that had to do with the audiobook narrator that I didn't love, but another piece of it was that, while I really enjoyed the writing style, I didn't feel that the stories really went together very well. (In case you're not familiar with Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, it's a story told like a folktale with lots of folktales within it.). While all the stories were good, and most were relevant, sometimes it kind of felt like they were inserted in there, like "Hey! Let's tell a story!" Here, each story that a character told was about them, and their life, so it really was more of a character development piece.
Starry River of the Sky, Lin's follow-up to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is the story of Rendi, a boy running away. He stows away in a wine merchant's cart, only to be unceremoniously dumped at an inn in the Village of Clear Sky, so named because long ago, the innkeeper's ancestors moved the moon. Though the innkeeper takes great pride in his work, hardly anyone ever visits the inn, since everyone is so poor. You see, the moon has been missing from the sky for some time, and with it water, and with that, crop growth. Rendi is bitter at having to become a chore boy, but he becomes intrigued by Madame Chang, a strange and beautiful guest at the inn, and her stories, so that he eventually starts to tell his own. All the stories are woven together so well, and so intricately. This is a really interesting story, full of magic toads, forbidden love, the moon, and the moon lady. And oh yeah, lots of Chinese folktales.