Monday, May 7, 2012

The Year of the Book

Horn Book (May/June, 2012)

Before the first chapter begins, we already know something about narrator Anna Wang: she always has her head stuck in a book. Nine-year-old Anna reads for all the right reasons ("Soon I am with Sam [in My Side of the Mountain], hollowing out a stump to make my own little house"), but she also uses reading as a shield against social exclusion (of the specialized fourth-grade-girl kind) and her own lack of confidence ("her face looks friendly, but I don’t know her so I’m afraid to go over to the group. Instead I open my book and read standing up"). At school, Anna’s friend from last year, Laura, now hangs out with the popular girls; at home, Anna is ashamed of her mother’s English and fights with her about attending Chinese language school. But she keeps reading -- specific children’s books, from Leo Lionni’s picture book Little Blue and Little Yellow to Jacqueline Woodson’s Hush, which are integrated into the narrative. Sometimes a book helps illuminate Anna’s own life (as when thinking about My Louisiana Sky helps her feel less critical of her mother’s imperfections); sometimes a book is part of the external plot (as when Laura and Anna, beginning to be friends again, dress up as Little Blue and Little Yellow for Halloween). As the year progresses, once in a while Anna even puts a book down. Cheng’s telling is as straightforward yet sympathetic as her self-contained main character; and Halpin’s often lighthearted pencil-and-wash sketches both decorate and enrich this perceptive novel. martha v. parravano

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