Thursday, June 16, 2011
THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu
by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Scholastic Press, 2011
review copy provided by the publisher
An ancient Chinese commentary states that “Harmony is like making congee. One uses water, fire, vinegar, sauce, salt and plum to cook fish and meat, and burns firewood and stalks as fuel for the cooking process. The cook blends these ingredients harmoniously to achieve the appropriate flavor.” In this enthralling book, we get to watch Lucy Wu take the disparate ingredients that have come her way at the beginning of 6th grade and, with some guidance from idioms that she learns in Chinese school, blend them together to make it her best year ever.
When we meet Lucy, she is focused on her love of basketball and the prospect of having a room to herself after her sister, Regina, goes off to college. But then her much-loved recently-deceased grandmother’s previously-unknown sister comes to visit from China for several months, and shares her room. Her parents insist that she go to a new Chinese school that is at the same time as her beloved basketball league’s practice. And an underhanded arch-nemesis at school works hard to find ways to make her give up on her dream of being the 6th grade basketball team captain.
Lucy’s relationship with her great aunt is central to the story. They get off to a rocky start, with a “great wall” of furniture between them down the middle of Lucy’s room, and it is heartwarming to watch their relationship become warm and loving through shared experiences.
Noodle soup also has a key role in the story, and Lucy’s feelings about Chinese food and American food reflect her struggles to integrate her Chinese heritage into her American life. At the start of the book, her sister Regina, who founded a Chinese Culture and Language Society in the high school, calls her a “banana … yellow on the outside and white on the inside.” But we see her gradually embrace this side of herself as she improves her Mandarin skills, learns more about Chinese and Chinese-American history, and gets to know her great aunt better.
Parts of the story brought back strong memories for me. Unplanned dumpling making at Lucy’s birthday party perfectly evoked Chinese New Year in Harbin with my partner’s mother. Lucy’s older brother is heavily steered by his parents towards math and engineering, since he has shown some talents, even though he is more interested in history. And I could really relate to the class outcast, Talent, who (unlike me in 6th grade) is eventually brought into the fold by Lucy and her friends.
In summary, the author has blended her ingredients harmoniously to achieve a wonderful book. I loved it, and recommend that everyone read it!
A note from the guest reviewer, Dave Hahn: I'm Mary Lee's brother and I loved this book. But why should you pay attention to me? Unlike Mary Lee, I don't teach elementary school, I don't have a master's in children's literature, I'm not the outgoing president of the Notables committee, I'm not the coauthor of a long-running children's literature blog, and this list could go on for quite a while. But I have always loved reading, it is hard for authors to impress me, and I have had a lot of experiences that parallel Lucy's. In particular, I am learning Mandarin, and love all kinds of Chinese food.