Every once in a while, I come across a book that I can’t wait to recommend. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles. The plot doesn’t involve some grandiose theme or solve a devastating problem. It’s just a simple story with the potential to touch a wide variety of readers for different reasons.
The Year of the Book written by Andrea Cheng (Where Do You Stay?; Brushing Mom’s Hair; Only One Year) and illustrated by the talented Abigail Halpin (Penny Dreadful; The Grand Plan to Fix Everything; The Melancholic Mermaid) is one such example. Its protagonist, fourth grader Anna Wang is a Chinese-American who feels more than a little out of place in her surroundings. The other more popular girls at school led by Allison, “a whispering kind of girl” with “brown hair and sweater sets,” are different from Anna in every way. One girl’s mother is a high school principal while another girl’s is a high-powered executive assistant. But Anna’s background is different.
“I can’t just say that my mom vacuums and mops every Saturday,” she admits quietly, “or that she learned English almost perfectly because she is very perseverant and now she is going to college so some day she can be a nurse.
It’s hard being a minority at school and her parents, who want Anna to learn Chinese and be proud of her heritage, don’t always understand that the drive to “fit in” isn’t always a rational one. Sometimes it’s just easier to blend into the background by sticking your nose in a book. To make matters worse, Anna’s old friend Laura spends too much time kissing up to snooty Allison. So when Laura comes to Anna for help in dealing with her family problems, what Anna really wants to do is pretend she has other plans, even if it’s just practicing her Chinese characters.
But as in every worthwhile read, The Year of the Book has a few tricks up its sleeve. Anna learns the power of empathy when Mr. Shepherd, an elderly wheelchair-bound neighbor, gives her his newly deceased wife’s set of watercolors because he knows Anna loves to paint. In due turn, she decides to ask Laura to help her sew a set of special drawstring bags for Mr. Shepherd and their moms, and a few other special folks, just to spread the good cheer around. Anna’s life may not be perfect and she still feels like an outsider a lot of the time. But at least she’s beginning to understand the value of “peng you” (“friend” in Chinese).
Readers will enjoy picking out references to other notable children’s titles throughout the book (My Side of the Mountain, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Charlotte’s Web,and Hush are just a few of those that are mentioned) and light instructions on how to sew a lunch bag and fold a Won Ton are included for fun. Plus, as a reader, I can’t help but love this conversation between Laura and Anna (the “I”):
“Not really,” I say.
“You seem like you are.”
I look at the floor. “I just like to read.”
To read the rest of this review, please visit Letter Blocks: The B&N Parents and Educators Blog.