Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Shang, Wendy Wan-Long. The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu. Scholastic, 2011. 312 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-16215-9. This book is appropriate for grades 3 to 6, or ages 8 to 12, depending on reading level.

(3 1/2 stars out of 4)

As a former high school English teacher, I have a tendency to shy away from books that are “young.” I like the issues and complexities of “older” novels; it’s a tough transition from Paradise Lost to Junie B. Jones. However, sometimes new works look so utterly charming that I cannot resist—books like A Crooked Kind of Perfect and Larry: the King of Rock and Roll have made me laugh far more than anything on my middle school’s shelves, and both of those books would be as welcome in a third grader’s hands as they would be in a fifth or sixth grader’s hands. When I picked it up, I hoped that The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by first-time children’s author Wendy Wan-Long Shang would be one of those cute, funny, occasionally clever and/or insightful novels and it did not disappoint. I was so thoroughly engaged in the melodrama of the protagonist that I will even forgive the new author’s use of the word “schlep” (what 11-year-old would say that?). I chuckled from beginning to end and laughed out loud several times during my afternoon with Lucy Wu, which may be the best endorsement available for a middle-level novel.

Precocious 11-year-old Lucy Wu is certainly envious of her gorgeous, Chinese-speaking sister Regina and always feels misunderstood, underappreciated and disrespected in her family, but Lucy is convinced that Regina’s move to college will kick off the best year of her life. However, as soon as she and BFF Madison finish planning a massive redecoration of the bedroom Lucy used to share with Regina, she receives what she perceives as terrible news: Lucy will have to share her room with an old aunt from China named Yi Po. Yi is Lucy’s deceased grandmother Po Po’s long lost sister, and she has finally surfaced. Lucy resents Yi Po for being alive while her beloved grandmother Po Po is gone, and Lucy builds a wall between her space and Yi Po’s space in their room: “Now the desk and bookcase formed a wall between the two beds. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu . . . And I hid my favorite picture of my grandmother, the last one we took before she got sick, in my bookcase” (72). Lucy gets angry at herself because she is starting to lose her distinct memories of Po Po, and angry at Yi Po for reminding her of that sad fact. Even Po Po’s world class noodles, reproduced by Yi Po, depress Lucy: “I can’t remember what Po Po’s noodles tasted like anymore. I wish there were a way to record flavors the way you can record music, and then you could play it over and over in your mouth” (83). To make matters worse, the family of her acquaintance Talent Chang has opened a Chinese school and Mr. And Mrs. Wu have told Lucy that she must go. Unfortunately, Chinese school is scheduled during practice for Lucy’s one true passion, basketball. Lucy desperately wants to be team captain, but even if she could play, the bully Sloane Connors also wants to be captain, and her band of Amazons are ready to pounce on anyone who gets in Sloane’s way. Lucy must make some hard decisions about her future on and off of the court, and she must somehow learn to accept Yi Po’s odd yet hauntingly familiar ways if she is ever to find harmony in her life.

I was instantly taken with Lucy as a character because of her authentic voice; I know many 11-year-olds who have the same manic disposition, the same insecurities, the same overreactions to everything. She is annoying at times, but only because she is real. Ms. Sheng is careful to make the Chinese-American Wu family just as American as Chinese; Lucy’s favorite food is Italian, although dumplings and Chinese noodles do play a prominent role in the story. I particularly enjoyed the author’s use of Chinese idioms and language; I even recognized one of the stories from Jon Muth’s brilliant and quirky Zen Shorts. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang is a fine first novel that poignantly and humorously paints a picture of two worlds—old and new, Chinese and American. Not surprisingly, although the two worlds seem disparate, they are more alike than anyone realizes; it is both their similarities and their differences that strengthen both the characters and the narrative.

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