Wednesday, May 11, 2011

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

This book was a really good read on the heals of Anya's War by Andrea Alban. While Anya's War was set in 1939, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is set in the 21rst century. Lucy, who is just entering the sixth grade and is ready to rule the school and the basketball court with her pro free throws, is disappointed (understatement) to find out that she's going to have to share her room with her great-aunt. (Who, incidentally, lived through the time illustrated in Anya's War.)

Lucy's spells out the reasons for her frustration in the book: One. She was promised her own room for the first time in her life, and she was ecstatic to be able to finally practice her interior decorating skills to make it look the way she wanted. With someone else sharing it, it seemed hardly worth the effort...  in fact, after her great aunt arrives, her interior decorating style degenerates into something she describes as the "I can't find my math homework" look."

Number Two. Lucy was still grieving. Her grandmother used to live with her, and she and Lucy were basically best buds. After her grandmother died, Lucy is worried about forgetting her, and forgetting all the beautiful memories they made together. With her great-aunt coming, she couldn't stand the thought that she might try to take her grandmother's place...especially when the two were separated when they were little and hardly knew each other! Lucy is so self-focused that she does not even consider the possibility that she and her family just might be able to allow Yi Po (the great aunt) to know her long lost sister in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

Still another problem was (Number Three) that Lucy was woefully lacking in the Chinese element of her Chinese-American life. This is demonstrated when they are invited to a fancy Chinese restaurant for a birthday party. While her sister Regina converses happily in fluent Mandarin and her brother indiscriminately shoves various disgusting-sounding foods into his mouth; Lucy sits by and watches, heaping her plate with rice and shoving it in her mouth so no one would have to find out how badly she speaks Mandarin. She is, in her sister's words, a Twinkie: "yellow on the outside and white on the inside". Lucy was happy with that. Just give her some lasagna and a basketball, and she was good to go! But Yi Po's arrival made her parents even more aware of the importance of her Chinese language/cultural education. And since there was a new Chinese school starting up on Saturday mornings, they decided that was a much better use of her time than going to basketball practice, which was at the same time.

Through all these things, Wendy Shang does a great job of revealing different personalities through her excellent dialogue and narrative. Lucy is extremely selfish, equally self-conscious, and surprisingly pessimistic for a girl of 11 who is ready to start 6th grade and glide through a year of being one of the "elite" in the school. But Wendy Shang masterfully laces the pessimism with bursts of humor that reveal Lucy as just another "tween" figuring out her place in the world. The other personalities are equally interesting, though less developed. Each person is presented as rational, having their own strengths and weaknesses, even the school bully, Sloane, and Lucy's depressingly beautiful sister who seems to have perfect looks and a perfect life, but comes home from college with her hair cut short because she is tired "of being objectified because of my beauty." Even Yi Po's personality is revealed, though with surprisingly little dialogue. Through Lucy's ears, we hear her methodically shuffling around the bedroom in her slippers, making her bed and fluffing the pillows. It's clear that Yi Po sees and understands Lucy's love of basketball. In fact, one early morning after Lucy and her friend had been practicing in the room, Lucy first hears the slippers shuffling quickly across the floor, then the sound of crumpled paper hitting the metal wastebasket, and then perhaps, the tiniest laugh.

But things change and people grow and learn as they do in all good stories. Lucy's wall of her desk and dresser and bookcase, that she constructed down the middle of her room before her Yi Po arrived, is gradually breached and then taken down completely. She learns that Chinese school isn't so bad. And with the help of her friends, she begins to see Yi Po not as embarrassingly oriental, but as an interesting person (who can make killer dumplings!) In fact, it is Yi Po and her group of Ma Jong players that eventually make possible Lucy's dream of coaching the 6th grade team against the teachers in the fundraiser student/faculty game.

This is a fun book and easy read for mid-grade students and presents some good opportunities for talking about other cultures and ethnicities within the United States. I'll definitely be looking forward to the next book from Wendy Wan-Long Shang!

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