Sometimes I just desperately wish for time travel. Usually it's because I'd like to go back and shake my 20-something-year-old self into finishing my degree (since I always wonder how much further I'd be in my career if I'd done it then instead of now). Sometimes it's because I'd like to reassure my 30-something-year-old self that this adoption thing really is going to turn out great and totally be worth the risk. But most often, it's because I come across a book that I would love, dearly love, to go back in time and present to my grade-school self.
Most recently that desire was sparked by Andrea Cheng's The Year of the Book. This is the kind of book I would have lived for as a middle-grader, one that is bursting at the seams with character and heart and all kinds of fantastic novels to boot. Oh, and just about the most adorable drawings, courtesy of the delightful illustrator Abigail Halpin (whose pictures for Penny Dreadful made me love that fantastic book even more, if that's possible!).
Anna's the kind of girl I was at her age -- bookish, slightly lonely and yet fulfilled in herself. She was best friends with Laura, but now all of a sudden Laura's hanging out with a different crowd and they don't seem to have time for Anna. This bothers her, but she's got her own life: her friendship with crossing guard Ray, her creative pursuits in the realm of sewing, and of course, her books. In fact, a book is the place Anna'd most like to be, when she's feeling out of place in Chinese school for being ABC (American-born Chinese) or when she's embarrassed by her report on winter break, when she built paper airplanes with her brother most days. As each novel she reads unfolds, Anna not only learns more about her fictional friends, but also finds more confidence in who she is, and what she has to offer to a real-life friend.
Fans of Grace Lin's Pacey novels (The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days) will find a lot to love about Anna Wang as well. For starters, Anna is also a girl with a foot in two worlds, both American and Chinese, and she doesn't always feel she fits in either one. Then, too, there is the search to find a friend, which both Pacey and Anna experience. I love that Cheng gives us a very realistic scenario for Anna to face, that of friends suddenly changing allegiances for no apparent reason. That's grade school for you, isn't it? And though Laura and Anna keep the thread of friendship, it isn't quite the same while Laura's hanging out with another crowd. There's also the fact that Anna isn't always sure how she feels about her parents. While she's proud of her mother for learning to drive and attempting to master English, Anna sometimes finds herself embarrassed by her mom's Chinese-ness. Kids of all backgrounds will identify with Anna's struggle to reconcile her feelings.
Though The Year of the Book is pretty short, and the story is comparatively quiet, there's a lot to think about here. It's great to see an Asian American heroine for this age, one who is totally relatable to the audience Cheng is writing for.The story is well-told, the characters finely drawn, and overall it's a real and true pleasure to read. And Halpin's illustrations add just the right note of whimsy - her renditions of familiar book covers are particularly charming, and kids just may find some new titles for their reading lists. What could be better than that?
The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Sample: "Writing that makes me think about Mom. I always wished I had a mom who spoke perfect English and who got her driver's license when she turned sixteen. But if Mom wasn't the way she is, she wouldn't be my mom and I wouldn't be me. Suddenly I just want to go home, but I have to finish my work first."