Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lessons in Unity and Friendship - Review of "The Year of the Book" by Andrea Cheng

Title: The Year of the Book
Author: Andrea Cheng
Illustrator: Abigail Halpin
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 2012
Recommended for Ages: 8 and up

Synopsis (from Goodreads) -
In Chinese, peng you means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated. When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through A Wrinkle in Time, or peering over My Side of the Mountain, books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world. Books, however, can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend. She’ll have to discover that on her own. In the tradition of classics like Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and Eleanor Estes’ One Hundred Dresses, this novel subtly explores what it takes to make friends and what it means to be one.

My Review:
This is my second year as a reader/reviewer for the Beehive Book Awards (sponsored by the Children's Literature Association of Utah - must plug) and when I got the long list of books the committee was considering for next year's nominees, I was sort of... underwhelmed. Mostly because I was only familiar with one, maybe two, books on that list. But I figured this would be a great chance to discover some new titles and, who knows, I might fall in love with a few. Enough to write about them on my blog perhaps?

Well, I've finished a fair few already. Some have impressed me, some not so much. But none (so far - it hasn't even been a month) have enchanted me like The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng.

Most of the time, when I've read multicultural literature, I've felt very excluded.  Like, because I'm white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, I'm not supposed to relate or even care about these characters. At best, I'm supposed to be indifferent to these people. At worst, I am supposed to be a racist jerk. This "world" is not for me, nor am I supposed to feel like I want to gain entry. These worlds have been built up for a specific group of people and I am not part of that group, no matter how well-meaning or interested I may be - The fact remains that I am part of this arbitrary "majority," thus I am an unwelcome outsider for reasons outside of my personal control.

Quite frankly, it's insulting. Particularly because I've never had a racist tendency in my entire life, nor was I raised to be that way. But because of that feeling I've gotten from books in this genre, I've tended to shy away from multicultural literature. I got the message, people. You don't want me reading it. It's not for me or people who look like me. I'll just take my ball and go home, okay? (I am side-eyeing you so hard right now, The House on Mango Street).

But every so often, a book comes along that is considered "multicultural," but is also inclusive of everybody. A book that doesn't hide a main character's ethnicity, but also doesn't exclude the arbitrary "other" that our society has built-up to keep our little groups apart. A book aimed at children, but teaches everybody that you don't have to look or act or speak like the main character in a story in order to relate to them.

Anna Wang is a nine-year-old girl who wants to make friends. But she's shy and would much rather read a book than anything (oh gee - where have I heard that before? *points to self at nine years old*). Her mother, Mary (who's from China), works as a cleaning lady in an apartment building, while she studies to be a nurse. Her father (who's of Chinese descent, but from San Francisco) is a store manager. Anna goes to Chinese School as well as everyday public school, even though she has only been to China once and that was when she was too young to remember. Her mother speaks very accented Chinese and struggles to learn English, which sometimes embarrasses Anna.

This story is so different from any kind of "multicultural" novel I've read for the simple fact that Anna does not use her perceived differences as an excuse for her problems, nor does she use them to purposely exclude others. In her mind, there is no reason that she cannot be friends with the other girls in her class. In fact, it is her kindness toward another girl, Laura, that wins her the best friend she could possibly have. And Laura, whose parents are going through a heated separation, is only too glad to have a friend. Laura even asks Anna about Chinese culture and language and works to understand her new friend's background. There is zero prejudice here - real or imagined. It is childlike innocence and acceptance at it's finest and one only hopes that Anna and Laura stay friends throughout the years.

It's evident where Anna learns kindness from - her mother, Mary Wang, is one of the sweetest, most hard-working women in children's literature - probably in all kinds of literature as well.  Mary often takes Anna with her to work when she cleans the apartment building and one of the tenants in the building, Mr. Shepherd, is an elderly widower who needs help getting around, but still tries to be independent.  The first time we meet Mr. Shepherd, he has fallen out of his wheelchair and needs help to get up. And he only fell out in the first place because he was trying to get one of his late wife's dresses out of the closet because he thought Mary would like it. This first scene (and the brilliant illustration by Abigail Halpin) is such a touching moment - Anna and Mary helping the sweet, old Mr. Shepherd up and visiting with him because it's the right thing to do.  No distinctions made between American and Chinese - just human beings helping one another.

Mr. Shepherd isn't the only character who Anna is kind to. She laughs at Ray's, the crossing guard at her school, silly jokes.  She sends a card to Ms. Simmons', her teacher, ailing mother.  She befriends and helps Camille, a girl from Chinese School who transfers to Anna's school when Camille's parents discover that Camille has a learning disability and this other school is better equipped to help her. And she helps Laura, even though Laura was originally part of a group where the ringleader made it a point to ignore Anna - but then Laura ends up ostracized from the group as well. Anna remembers how it felt to be ignored and, rather than snub Laura for whatever part she played in that, Anna becomes her friend. Which ends up being so very crucial when Laura's parents split up and Laura ends up staying with Anna's family for a little while. There are hints that a lot more going on behind the scenes with Laura's parents that don't even enter into Anna's young mind, but as an adult reading this book, I was quite scared for Laura. But the narrative handles that situation so beautifully for a young audience - all kids need to know is Laura needs a friend and Anna is going to be that friend and I really appreciated how much talent it takes to write something like that. For that plot aspect alone, I have nothing but high praise for Andrea Cheng.

I haven't even really talked about Anna's books yet! The books Anna reads are integrated into the story so beautifully, it's almost impossible to have this story work without them.  So many of the key events in this story are tied to the books Anna is reading at the time (or she is reminded of books that's she's read before).  During Thanksgiving, she reads My Louisiana Sky, which helps her deal with the fact that her mother is still learning how to drive and doesn't speak perfect English - she likens Tiger Ann's struggle with her mother's disability to her own wishes for a "perfect" mother.  I love the paragraph Anna writes about the book:
I never thought of what it would be like if your mother was mentally retarded. At first, the girl wished she had a normal mother, but then she realized that she loved her mother the way she was. (Cheng, 69)
I totally love how many books Anna reads and how she relates them to herself.  Even Little Blue and Little Yellow becomes a Halloween costume for her and Laura (they paint a yellow circle and a blue circle on two pieces of posterboard that they loop around their necks) - even though people think that they're supposed to be a Visa card (which is hilarious to me, because that's MasterCard they're thinking of - which is red and yellow), Anna and Laura just have fun with it.

Another thing I love about Anna is that she's a far cry from being characterized the way many nine-year-old are in modern children's literature - she's not selfish or whiny or dominant. She loves her family and she's respectful of her parents, even though she sometimes wishes things were different. She tries hard to be kind to others, even when they are not kind back. She embraces her Chinese heritage and answers honest questions that people have about it (to their credit, the people in Anna's life are genuinely curious and politely ask Anna about Chinese culture and she is happy to share her knowledge). Anna is a remarkable role model for children to emulate - not just children who may be in "minority" group, but everybody.

This story made me feel like I wanted to be Anna's friend because of her kindness and intelligence and personality. And having a friend who could teach me Chinese would just be an added bonus. But beyond wanting to be Anna's friend - I actually feel like she would accept me as her friend. The tough issues were dealt with in a very age-appropriate manner, which I appreciated tremendously. But beyond that - this was a fantastic example of how kids don't see color or race or any of those boundaries that society has built up to keep everyone divided. Nobody needs to be a bully, nobody needs to be a victim. Friends are friends, people are people - and we need so many more stories to remind us of that. If you don't know where to start, The Year of the Book is a beautiful place to begin.

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