Friday, December 31, 2010

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

As a child I was an insatiable reader. I started reading very early and I have read nonstop ever since. Reading was an education, a comfort and an escape. In fact I passionately devoured so many classics from the British Isles that when I finally landed in Wales at the age of 16 it felt more like a homecoming than an adventure abroad! However, in all the thousands of pages I consumed in my youth and the millions of virtual miles travelled, I never once encountered a child like myself – one who was Asian American or even one who was navigating her way carefully between multiple cultures. It is difficult to articulate the psychic toll this invisibility takes on a young person.

This memory of finding out through books about other people’s lives but never delving more deeply into my own through literature (at least, not until my university years), is the major reason why as an adult today I am drawn particularly to children’s books that reflect diverse backgrounds. These books open the eyes of children in the cultural majority, showing them new perspectives they might otherwise never encounter, and they are also incredibly precious to the children whose lives they mirror. We are fortunate today to see the emergence of an increasing number of marvellously talented Asian American writers for young people. I am excited that
Wendy Wan-Long Shang has added to their number!

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a story that is at once universal and particular, and it is one that will appeal to upper elementary and middle school boys and girls equally. Every sixth grader feels self-conscious about being different at times (whether those differences are obvious or mostly internal) and it is the job of young people of this age to begin exploring where their parents end and their own identity begins. Lucy Wu is no exception. She starts off the school year with high hopes as she contemplates finally having a bedroom to herself and enjoying a great year with her best friend on their basketball team. However, these dreams are quickly shattered when she learns of her parents’ plans to bring her long-lost great-aunt from China to share her room and for her to go to Chinese Saturday school instead of basketball practice!

How Lucy navigates her way through these challenges makes for an entertaining and educational read. The educational aspects are woven seamlessly into the story and presented in an entirely age-appropriate way: Chinese cultural information, background on the Cultural Revolution, the sad realities of racism and classism. The entertaining part is that the information always moves the story forward; it never feels like a digression or mini-lecture as is too often the case.

One of the challenges of writing multi-cultural books is that the author must include enough explanation to make the story and characters comprehensible to people outside the community, but not so much that it bogs down the plot or makes readers from the group that is portrayed feel as if they are being treated as an interesting curiosity. Shang walks this tightrope brilliantly. She also excels at creating well-rounded characters who are products of their cultures as well as distinct individuals.

When my daughter finished this book, the first thing she said was, “I hope she writes a sequel.” That was my feeling too: I started reading it and wanted to do nothing else, though I was also reluctant to finish and have the journey end. Lucy and her family stole my heart. They held up a mirror to my own childhood but also taught me a great deal. There’s not much more I can ask for from a book.

1 comment:

jama said...

What a beautifully written review. I love this book, too, for all the reasons you mentioned. :)