Ever had that happen? If you ever were a misfit somewhat-on-the-fringe bookworm like I was, it might just have been your biggest relief. Seriously, there was little I found more comforting than knowing that I surely couldn't be the only one for whom middle school was pretty much torture, and then reading a book that showed me someone out there felt the same (and wrote the book about it).
Even today I love finding books like that, because they can be a lifeline for kids who are having the same experience right now. I think that's especially true for kids who stand out in some way, and often that's due to cultural differences in their family life. That's certainly the case for the title character in Wendy Wan-Long Shang's The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. Lucy is relatable, accessible and someone that middle-grade readers will recognize in the mirror, even if they don't share her Chinese-American heritage.
When we meet Lucy, she's primed for a great year in sixth grade. This is going to be her moment to shine, and nothing symbolizes that more than the fact that she'll no longer be sharing a room with her older sister Regina, who's off to college soon. But everything crashes down on Lucy when she finds out that her family will be hosting a visit from Auntie Yi Po, a relative Lucy's never even heard of, much less met. And just guess where Yi Po will be staying, when she's with the family for several months. If you picked Lucy's almost-all-hers bedroom, you win (but in Lucy's view, she loses).
Shang absolutely nails Lucy's experience of feeling like an outsider even in her own family. While her sister Regina "majored in Being Chinese", Lucy can't speak much of the language and finds pretty much all the food more than she can handle. Now with Yi Po in the house, Lucy's off to Chinese school on the weekends and missing out on basketball - and she's not shy about voicing her opinion, just as her parents aren't shy about expressing theirs. Lucy feels the friction of her two worlds, and struggles to find a balancing point between them. It's a realistic struggle, and the dynamics between the family members are always believable.
I love the resolution that comes about, mostly because it rings absolutely right and true. You can feel Wendy Wan-Long Shang's passion for her subject and her devotion to making sure that young readers have a denouement that is both positive and plausible. Lucy Wu is a character kids will root for and relate to; though Shang is a debut author, her skills speak for themselves. Hand this to kids who love Judy Blume, Grace Lin or Beverly Cleary - and then we'll all be waiting on pins and needles to read more from this talented author!
Sample: "Now the desk and bookcase formed a wall between the two beds. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. When I lay down on my bed, all I could see was my side of the desk and the front of the bookcase. And I hid my favorite picture of my grandmother, the last one we took before she got sick, in my bookcase."