By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution. This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America’s armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.
This was the first book by Steve Sheinkin I’ve read and I picked this particular one up because he talked about creating it at his keynote at the ALSC Institute. This is how middle grade nonfiction should be. It was such an interesting story made more approachable by Sheinkin’s storytelling. The book read a lot more like a novel than a dry, factual recounting of events. Which isn’t to say he embellished the story, just that he relayed it in a way that felt organic like a story. I think that probably says a lot about the state of most nonfiction.
I don’t usually use quotes, but I think the following line from the book illustrates so well why kids will click with this book and this story and why they connect with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. “The whole trial gave Albert Williams the unsettling feeling of being a kid and being accused by an adult of something he hadn’t done.” Kids are finely attuned to injustice. They despise it because it is one of those things that makes childhood and adolescence so difficult. They live it every day- “because I said so”, “do it this way”, etc. They are told by their parents and teachers how to think, how to behave, how to feel and how to be even, when it isn’t their truth. To see this happening to others, kids connect with that and feel the injustice personally.
Add to this an interesting and rather scandalous story and Sheinkin’s skilled storytelling and I think this book will have appeal for kids who have learned about the Civil Rights Movement and kids who love nonfiction. I think you could even hand sell it to kids who don’t normally read nonfiction, but are interested in history. The writing is certainly engaging enough.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A boy alone in his room.
Sketchbook in hand.
What would it be like to on safari?
A boy named Leonardo begins to imagine and then draw a world afar; first a rhinoceros, and then he meets some monkeys, and he always has a friendly elephant at his side. Soon he finds himself in the jungle and carried away by the sheer power of his imagination, seeing the world through his own eyes and making friends along the way.
I had a really emotional reaction to this book. It is such an incredible story and told entirely without words. It reminds me of some of the best visual storytelling you see in movies (the opening credits of Watchmen and the tear-jerker montage in Up to name two) which is not easy to do well.
While in his room a young boy, possibly Colon, sits on his bed reading a book. The mood strikes him and he picks up his sketch pad. As you leave the world of his bedroom for the African continent the art style changes and the new style, a more lush, layered and colorful style, comes into view through a series of panels that grow in size indicating how they slowly fill the room and the boy’s mind. The effect is done in reverse when the boy returns from his adventure. In the fantasy you see small details included from the room. The backpack of bread slowly empties as the boy shares it with the creatures he meets. He wears the same clothes. It becomes apparent that the elephant is his guide through the savannah. It’s these subtle details that really make the story effective and more complex and therefore interesting.
The story, while about a boy drawing, is really about how art can transport you. And not just drawing but books as well. It’s the book the boy was reading that inspired him to pick up paper and visually represent what he had been reading. I think this book is great for quietly perusing, but is also a great inspriration for kids who love to draw, paint, and create. It would also be a good discussion starter for classes learning about art and inspiration. I know a lot of parents think picture books are for young children, but this book would be wonderful for any age as the story is so timeless and universal.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Sep 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
When I was at the ALSC Institute about a week and half ago I attended a breakout session about diversity in children’s publishing. It was a really great discussion and I’m hoping to talk more about the issues when I attend the Kidliosphere blogging conference in a couple weeks.
While we were talking at this breakout session, though, I had a question that I’m not sure how to answer. Our discussion never really steered in that direction so I didn’t bring it up, not wanting to derail the whole session, but it definitely pertains to diversity in children’s literature. I’m wondering what you should/could/would do with problematic books that are already in a collection? Books that have stereotypes or racist over/undertones.
Specifically the Little House on the Prairie come to mind, but so do the TinTin comic books and I’m sure there are many more out there (especially some of the classics). I like to think that there books make for good discussion starters with kids, but I think the reality is that kids check them out, their parents don’t know that they have these issues, the kids read them, and bring them back. No discussion. The Little House books are pretty ubiquitous, at least at my school. They’re in several classrooms, they are in the library and a lot of kids read them. The teachers and librarian also hand them out/recommend them without making note of or even knowing about the racism in them. In fact I know many of them have fond memories of reading the books when they were young. I think it’s a problem if kids read this stuff and internalize the stereotypes and rhetoric and I really think it’s a problem if we don’t talk about it with kids. I don’t think the answer is to not let kids read the books, though. They have value, but how do you balance that with their issues?
So, what do you do with these books? Do you leave them in the collection? Do you weed them? Do you ask that kids present their parents with a note when they check the books out that details concerns with the book? Do you educate the teachers? Do you remove them and find better alternatives? Do you start the conversation with the kids? Does this cross boundaries that the parents may not want crossed?
I’m sure there is no one perfect answer or solution, but I think it’s really important that we don’t let the label of “classic” or our own nostalgia get in the way of being sensitive to the very dark issues that these books have.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Eleven-year-old Poppy Ray longs to be a veterinarian, but she’s never had a pet. This summer, she’s going to spend a month with her uncle Sanjay, veterinarian and owner of the Furry Friends Animal Clinic on an island off the Washington coast.
Poppy is in for big surprises. She loves tending to the dogs, cats, and even a bird, and she discovers the fun of newborn puppies and the satisfaction of doing a good job. But she learns that there’s more to caring for animals than the stethoscope and cotton swabs in her Deluxe Veterinarian First-Aid Kit. She’s not prepared for quirky pet owners, gross stuff, or scary emergencies. With help from a boy named Hawk, a chunk of seaglass, and a touch of intuition, Poppy gains a deeper understanding of the pain and joy of working with animals.
Seaglass Summer was such a sweet book. Poppy must be the most naive and sheltered kid ever, but she was so likable. Her tender heartedness and determination made her very endearing. While Poppy’s parents have gone to India for the summer, Poppy has been invited to stay with her maternal uncle in Witless Cove. The summer becomes one of eye-opening, heart wrenching, and heart warming experiences.
Through learning about her uncle’s struggle to become a vet and through her experiences at the clinic, Poppy comes to realize that becoming a vet means more than buying a Deluxe First-Aid kit. She sees first hand the ups, downs, and zaniness that working with animals entails. She also finds it’s not always about the animals. Sometimes you are treating the pet owner.
After reading some dark YA (and even some darker MG) it was refreshing to see Poppy’s uncle. He’s just an all around great guy. Dedicated to his practice, the animals, and their owners. He dotes on Poppy and has generously asked her to stay with him for a month so that she can spend time in his animal clinic. Sometimes he’s a little clueless, like when Poppy gets faint over blood and other nasty aspects of veterinary science, but for the most part he is attentive and easy going.
Being a small community, Witless Cove is home to a couple quirky people. One is a dog owner and psychic. She invites Poppy over for a reading and her uncle good-naturedly takes Poppy over. She gives Poppy some advice that proves to be useful. Poppy should find some sea glass and use it meditate everyday. The meditation is only mildly successful, but Poppy does take the opportunity to do a little inner reflection. She finds strength that she never knew she had.
Poppy also has the good fortune to make a friend while in town. Hawk is the son of the receptionist at the clinic and a couple years older than Poppy. Hawk shows Poppy the ropes and even takes her around town a bit.
I would like to point out that Poppy is Indian-American, but this really is never brought up. Even her uncle’s ethnicity in a small town is a non-issue. Late in the book Poppy finds out that it was difficult for him to find somewhere to work because he is Indian, but he stuck to his dream to be a vet and found solutions. It’s a minor mention of his struggle, and while I think it’s an important issue, the brevity is probably best for the intended audience.
Seaglass Summer would be a great book for kids who like animals and especially for kids who want to be vets. I think any kid who feels called to a profession or passion could relate to Poppy, though. The diversity may also be a draw for readers who like a more mixed cast of characters.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When do you introduce children to a difficult topic like the Japanese Internment? That’s a tough question and part of it will depend on the child, but when I was working in the second grade we definitely broached the topic. I think it’s surprising how ready children are to learn about really difficult topics and I would recommend against assuming that they can’t handle them. Children’s fiction often does a wonderful job of presenting complex and fraught history to kids in a way that helps them understand and process it. The following are three excellent books that teach children about the Japanese Internment without overburdening or overwhelming them.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki: This was one we read every year in second grade and the kids loved it. It does a really wonderful job showing how important it was to have something to do in the camps. The child’s perspective also gives the story an immediacy for children hearing the story. Even though this one is older, it is well worth reading. Sports fan will enjoy this story even though it’s really more a historical fiction.
Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss: Another baseball story. This one follows the story of Zeni, an incredible professional baseball player who, because of his Japanese heritage, was put into a camp. The book is based on the true story of how he saw that the people in the camp needed something to do and worked very hard to build a baseball stadium complete with bleachers for the fans and uniforms for the players. He involves nearly everyone in the camp in some way with the project and gives them a new purpose. I especially like the lack of animosity in the story. I think with stories of injustice it’s easy to slip into pointing fingers and assigning blame, but I don’t think that kind of writing helps children understand what happened or appreciate the heroism of the people who rose above their situation. The art is also really incredible in this book. It has the feel of old sports ads and baseball cards (especially the cover). Back matter has a more complete story of Zeni with pictures of him standing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The story is a little long so it may be better suited to second or third grade and up, but it is certainly appropriate. As with Baseball Saved Us, this story may encourage sports fans to read more history.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai: I loved this book. Not only does Mari use art to help her understand the situation she finds herself in, but she also uses gardening to help her and others heal. Mari struggles to understand why she and her family are now living in such an abysmal place as Topaz and she retreats within herself. Eventually her art class and art teacher give her the ability to beautify the family’s barren cabin with her drawings of their old home. When the sunflower seeds she planted with her mother finally begin to grow, so does Mari’s hope that there will be beauty in her life again.There is also a story of friendship here. Mari knows none of the children in the camp with her, but through her art class she meets another little girl who eventually becomes her friend. Through their friendship she finds someone she can lean on and talk to. The story is based on the author’s grandmother’s experience in the Topaz camp.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When their mother catches their father with another woman, twelve year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother, Ezikiel, are forced to leave their comfortable home in Lagos for a village in the Niger Delta, to live with their mother’s family. Without running water or electricity, Warri is at first a nightmare for Blessing. Her mother is gone all day and works suspiciously late into the night to pay the children’s school fees. Her brother, once a promising student, seems to be falling increasingly under the influence of the local group of violent teenage boys calling themselves Freedom Fighters. Her grandfather, a kind if misguided man, is trying on Islam as his new religion of choice, and is even considering the possibility of bringing in a second wife.
But Blessing’s grandmother, wise and practical, soon becomes a beloved mentor, teaching Blessing the ways of the midwife in rural Nigeria. Blessing is exposed to the horrors of genital mutilation and the devastation wrought on the environment by British and American oil companies. As Warri comes to feel like home, Blessing becomes increasingly aware of the threats to its safety, both from its unshakable but dangerous traditions and the relentless carelessness of the modern world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the witty and beautifully written story of one family’s attempt to survive a new life they could never have imagined, struggling to find a deeper sense of identity along the way.
I absolutely loved this book and then I realized the author was white. And now I’m not sure if that changes how I view the book. Which isn’t to say an author has to limit themselves to their own gender, culture, experience, etc. but their research needs to be solid. If the relationships and themes are authentic and transcend anything superficial then the author has succeeded.
This was such an easy book to fall into. The setting was finely drawn.The life before and after the father’s affair is discovered. The living situation at the grandfather’s compound. The political situation in the delta region. The characters were likable and had depth. The slightly kooky grandfather. The grandmother who had learned to work within the traditional system to earn freedoms. The new wife who was loud and unabashed.
But Tiny Sunbirds is really the story of Blessing’s ascendency. She begins as rather shy and retiring, passive even. Used to a life with enough to eat, running water, a flush toilet, private schools, and air conditioning. The move to Warri breaks her away from this world and becomes an eye opening experience. Girls are not highly valued. Ultimately, when money runs thin, Blessing is pulled out of school, where she wasn’t especially welcome anyway. Instead of wilting away, though, Blessing connects with her grandmother who begins to teach her to be a midwife. Through this Blessing finds a purpose and a future. She comes to grips with the physical violence of her old home. Slowly she comes out of her shell and begins to see and understand the world around her, including some of the choices her mother makes.
In counterpoint to this is her brother Ezikiel. It is painful to watch Ezikiel flounder. He has already lost his father, a poor role model to begin with, at a critical time, so he probably suffers the most as his mother slips aways. His grandfather means well, but does not take Ezikiel under his wing the way the grandmother does Blessing. Ezikiel has a severe allergy to groundnuts which makes eating nearly impossible. There are few alternatives to the groundnut oil used to fry food that cannot be kept refrigerated and no one seems to understand the severity of the allergy. When money runs short Ezikiel’s medication supply nearly runs out, leaving him in constant danger. As a boy, a lot of pressure is placed on him to do well in school and to learn to lead the family. Ezikiel tries to rise the occasion and although we don’t hear his internal struggles, it is clear he places a lot of stress on himself. Add to this Blessing beginning medical training when that is what Ezikiel wants and her growth when his seems stunted. It’s a toxic recipe. Because he is older he may have a better understanding of what went on in their house before their mother left their father and may have a better grasp on how their mother may be earning money to pay for his medicine and school. When he fails his school exams that would lead to medical school his downward spiral really begins.
I really felt for their mother. She is between a rock and hard place. She has endured physical abuse at the hands of a man she broke with her family over. When she discovers his affair, she returns home with her tail between her legs and her two children in tow. The family desperately needs money, so she goes to work. While she deals with the emotional fall out of her marriage, most of which we can only assume she is dealing with, she is forced to work more and more. The ones who suffer most are her children, whom she has little time for. She sees the money she is providing, that puts food on the table and pays school fees, as a substitute for her presence and attention; poor substitute, but a necessary one. Of course her children want more, but I doubt she could have given more under the circumstances. It is never entirely clear whether some of the money she earns comes from prostitution, but she clearly struggles with the option. She also watches her daughter grow away from her and need her less, which must have been hard. She watches as Blessing connects more with the mother she never fully understood. Blessing assumes her mother sees her father in her and dislikes that reminder, but I think what really troubles her mother is seeing her grandmother in her. Someone she did not connect or agree with for most of her life.
I also like the second wife, Celestine. The grandfather decides, at some point, that he wants a son and needs to take a younger, second wife. When Celestine arrives she is obnoxious. No one can stand her and yet she persists. She is poorly educated and because she is older than Blessing and married to a much older man you forget that she can’t be more than 18 or 19, a child herself. As the story progresses, however, she really comes into her own. She makes plenty of foolish mistakes along the way, some that are funny, some that are heartbreaking, some that are cringe-inducing. But she learns and she becomes a part of the family, accepted and accepting.
This is technically an adult book and it deals with some very mature themes, like female genital mutilation and physical abuse, that I think younger audiences need someone to walk them through, but Blessing is a charming character. This would be a good suggestion for more mature readers who like serious books, readers interested in Nigeria, or as an English class option. Although Blessing finds herself in a different situation from most Americans, I think the theme of finding yourself in very different circumstances and with a sink-or-swim dilemma is universal. Did Watson succeed in writing a book that was true to the culture of Nigeria, I don’t know. In terms of characters and themes I think she did, though.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyamdance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.
Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.
This was a lovely, quick novel. Ever since I read my first novel in verse I have kept my eye out for them. I find them to be really enjoyable as the story feels as though it is told through little vignettes or pictures. They are quick to read, but the sparseness of the language that is required, even by free verse, really emphasizes the language chosen and makes for impactful reading.
A Time to Dance reminded me a lot, a lot, of The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanan, but I clicked a lot more with Veda. I think I preferred her struggle to find a more spiritual connection with her dance after her accident instead of focusing on winning competitions. By the end of the story she really found peace with what happened to her emotionally and to her body.
I liked the romance in this book. It felt very authentic. There were a few fireworks but even though Veda and Govinda were physically attracted their connection felt like it was based more on shared interests and passions. They also balanced each other well. Govinda was softer with the sharp edges taken down, a people pleaser to some extent. While Veda was hard, direct, and intent on dong what she felt was right for herself, not what is expected.
Now I know novels in verse are technically poetry and poetry can be a hard sell, especially with the YA set. They start thinking about all those boring, overwrought poems they’ve had to dissect ad nauseum in English class. Novels in verse never feel pretentious to me and if you can get them past the idea that it’s poetry, novels in verse are great for reluctant readers.
The audience for this one is wide: dancers, kids who like diverse characters, fans of India, reluctant readers. Although, based on Veda’s age this is YA, I could certainly see this appealing to older MG readers (say 7th and 8th grade). There isn’t anything that is remotely questionable in content. Even the scene with the accident is not particularly jarring.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills.
The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own.
Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.
The Thing About Luck had a lot of interesting pieces to the story, but what really shone for me was the relationships between Summer and her grandparents. Summer always feels like she is disappointing her grandmother and isn’t very sure her grandmother loves her. Although in the past year when she had malaria she knows her grandmother wouldn’t leave her side at the hospital and she overhears her grandmother crying about Summer growing up too fast. She just can’t seem to get that caring grandmother to line up with the ornery, more distant grandmother she seems to disappoint everyday. I think a lot kids can really relate to trying very hard to be good and do the right thing, but still feeling as though they have failed a parent or grandparent. Summer is, however, close to her grandfather who is much more patient and gentle. She feels close with him and secure in his love. The juxtaposition of these two relationships really begins teaching Summer how love can mean different things and look very different without being diminished.
Summer really learns a lot about love over the few weeks the book spans. She assesses her relationship with her brother Jaz, who at times provokes and irritates because he is so different (he’s probably Asperger’s), but realizes she loves him all the same. She experiences the heartbreak of rejection when her crush decides he would rather spend time with the daughter of one of the farmers instead of her. But she also sees that rejection can be a lot worse when she talks with one of the other harvesters whose fiancee left him. Summer is a reflective kid standing on the cusp of young adulthood, knowing she still feels like a child but having a growing awareness of the world and how it works and taking a more active role in it.
On another note, Summer and her family are Japanese and Japanese-American, I never felt like that was “an issue” or even really a focus. I suppose it may have determined what kind of work the grandparents could get, but Summer mentions plenty of other types of people who take jobs as harvesters. And being an immigrant was not a common thread. I really appreciated that the diversity felt authentic and organic. It didn’t feel like a check box, nor was it discussed and dissected at great length. There is a time and place and book for that, but I don’t think that was the point of Summer’s story.
I would give this to kids who liked grandparent-grandchild relationship in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. It would also be good for kids who like family stories where the family ties are strong, but not without strife. This is certainly middle grade, but could skew a bit younger (4th or 5th grade) depending on interest.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
A disparate selection of titles I read this summer. Again, for the sake of brevity I have linked to their GoodReads page where you can read the synopsis.
Zebra Crossing / Meg Vandermerwe: I picked this one up because it had three diversity points- Zimbabwean emigrants, South African setting, and an albino. The story didn’t sound exactly upbeat, but it sounded interesting and appealing. Turns out it was downright depressing. I really liked the main character, Chipo. She had not had an easy life, but she was a friendly girl with capable of making friends and feeling deeply. She could have stood to be more assertive, but I think she always intended to be, but wasn’t given the chance. I liked the book, but it would take a special reader to really click with this one because it is so sad. (YA)
School for Good and Evil / Soman Chainani: This was a rare DNF (did not finish) for me. The premise of the book was actually very clever and I can see a lot of fairytale elements which is what attracted me to it in the first place. I just had a really hard time connecting with the characters. More often than not I found myself frustrated by Agatha’s willful blindness to the fact that Sophie is a terrible friend and Sophie’s blindness to what a good friend Agatha could be. The message that looks can be deceiving also felt heavy handed to me. Plus I got at least 100 pages in and not much had happened to really further the plot enough for my tastes. However! I think had I made it to the end, things would have worked themselves out. This felt a lot like a case of me clearly not being the target audience. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to kids who like friendship stories and fairytales. Especially fractured fairy tales. There are even a few Harry Potter elements mixed in here. (MG & younger YA)
Claire of the Sea Light / Edwidge Danticat: This is technically an adult novel and I didn’t pick it up because it was touted as a crossover, but any teen who likes literary novels and diversity could easily slip into this novel. It was not especially long either, which is often a plus with teen readers who are pressed for time. I cannot say how much I loved this novel. Danticat’s writing style is so lyrical and lovely, but not dense at all. The stories in this book, that follow a variety of people from the town Ville Rose around, felt like peeking into secret parts of people’s lives. Like when you see people driving and wonder where they are going and who they are. It was a sad novel, but not without hope. It also embraced the idea that things in life can come full circle. (YA)
The Martian / Andy Weir: This book was incredible. It was so good I made my husband read it. It was so good he, who reads a book every couple of years, finished it in two days. It was that good. It was definitely a plot driven novel, but there was enough character development to make it interesting for the people in the book. While it’s a survival story, Mark Watney is a funny guy. His quips and general attitude toward his situation make for good reading. And he is so clever in solving problems that seem insurmountable, like surviving on Mars. Interestingly, everything he talks about is technically possible and all of the equipment and technology is currently available even if it can’t quite be used to get to Mars just yet, so there is a realistic bent to a story that seems impossible. Another adult novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to give to a YA audience. I would even give it to a middle schooler who is nuts about space travel, just be aware that there is a mention of sex (although no actual sex) and several swear words. (YA)
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
I think this one is technically an adult novel, although I didn’t realize that when I got it. I would call it New Adult with plenty of appeal for an older YA audience. I’m not sure why I decided to read it (must have gotten a good review from someone) since I tend not to be interested in adult novels, but I’m glad I did.
Hooray! This one was not about a miserable middle aged woman having a tepid affair. In fact it ends well and despite adversity and a lack of confidence, Charlie is a likable and relatable character who you’re happy to see things work out for. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on adult fiction after all.
Mambo in Chinatown tackles a TON of issues, but Kwok keeps it from turning into an after school special. The struggles Charlie faces make the characters and story feel real. Actually, it’s the variety of issues and problems that could broaden the audience this book would appeal to.
Not only is dance a large part of the story but it’s shown as a path to bettering her chances in life. Charlie never considered going to college. She has some undiagnosed learning difficulties and never really did well in school. It was refreshing to read a story about someone choosing a different path that is treated as equally valid (even if it’s difficult).
Tension between traditional ways (and generations) and the younger generation is also a major theme. The immigrant experience plays into this, as well as ethnicity. Charlie has rarely been out of Chinatown and it’s a big deal when she begins to work outside. Charlie’s sister also suffers an unexplained health crisis (it is explained toward the end). Their uncle is an eastern medicine practitioner and their father tends to prefer this type of treatment and defers to his brother. Charlie is skeptical of it, especially when her sister’s health continues to spiral downward.
I was especially taken with the relationship between Charlie and her sister Lisa. They are eleven years apart and their mother died shortly after Lisa was born. With the added stress of being very poor, Charlie has had to grow up quickly and is more of a mother figure to Lisa than a sister. Charlie is wonderfully encouraging of Lisa and, because she is young and less tied to tradition, she makes a good advocate for her with their father, uncle, and larger community.
There’s been a lot of talk about NA being YA with sex and I even heard an author call Fifty Shades of Gray NA. I suppose it is in a way, but I think the idea that it has so much sex doesn’t make it NA. Sex is certainly a part of many (most?) people’s lives when they’re new adults but I think it’s rather simplistic to think that it’s the only thing that’s changed between young adulthood and new adulthood. Or the only part that new adults want to read about. Mambo in Chinatown has sex in it. One sex scene that really happens off page. It’s certainly not graphic. In fact I’ve read steamier sex scenes in YA novels. But I think the way Kwok handles this relationship in the book is how sex in a book appeals to new adults. If you want lots of graphic sex, read erotica. Read erotic NA. Here the sex is simply a part of the story, a minor but good part.
My one and only complaint about the book was that some of the metaphor gets a bit heavy-handed and obvious with big flashing red arrows pointing at them, but they were few and far between. Nor did they detract from the rest of the writing which was good.
Give this book to kids who are interested in dance, dance competition, diverse characters, tensions between tradition and modernity, and mother-daughter relationships.