J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa

By Maureen Tai, 20 March 2022

Some months ago, I had the pleasure of hearing literary translator, Avery Fischer Udagawa, read an excerpt from J-Boys (ages 10 and up), a refreshingly unique, memoir-style middle grade novel set in post-war Tokyo. I was so taken by the reading that I vowed to track down the book to share with my 11-year-old son, a feat I accomplished only several months later, but it could not have been more timely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had just begun and anxiety-inducing pronouncements of World War III were being shared and reshared on his school chat rooms like a nasty piece of schoolyard gossip. The time had come to talk about the reality of war, not as a vaguely discomforting series of grim facts from an unconnected past, but as a terrible ever-present violence that humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. What I didn’t expect was how J-Boys would help me frame that conversation.

J-Boys chronicles, in a series of linked, short stories, the life of a fourth-grade Japanese schoolboy, Kazuo, spanning 8 months in 1965. World War II ended two decades ago but its long shadow lingers, in particular for those who lived through those turbulent times. The effects of the war – nothing gory or grisly – are referred to fairly frequently throughout the book. Fortunately, Kazuo’s world, compared to that of his parents’, is infinitely more idyllic. He lives with his mum, dad and dog-obsessed younger brother in small but comfortable company housing. He does his homework in front of their black-and-white TV. He has a posse of friends who become the titular J-Boys: Nobuo, the butcher’s son, Minoru, a Korean boy, and Akira, a professor’s son. After school, they play in an empty lot before heading home for family dinners where fresh tofu – which Nobuo dislikes – features prominently. Kazuo loves curry rice, but hates miruku, a foul-tasting skimmed milk beverage that is forced on school children. He loves watching TV, but hates studying. He longs to try an American-style hanbaagaa (hamburger) but has to settle for a wafu (Japanese-style) hanburuguru steak instead (inexplicably, the word hanburuguru becomes my son’s new favourite word). While the events in Kazuo’s life are semi-fictional, the non-fictional elements of the setting are – or were – real, as explained in small shaded text boxes, unobtrusively interspersed with the narrative.

In these hyper-fast, instant-gratification times that we live in, we forget that what nourishes the body most is a long, warm soak in the bath, not constant jolts to the senses. J-Boys is not an irreverent graphic novel, page-turning adventure, nail-biting mystery or inspirational story of triumph-over-adversity, which are the narrow categories that most popular middle-grade books seem to fall into these days (to my chagrin). What it is, is an authentic, gentle, amusing yet poignant meander through the memories of a young boy growing up in a post-war world. It is a boat trip on a river, not a roller coaster ride. It is a comfort, not a distraction. Particularly for me, a child of Kazuo’s generation, it is a reminder that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, however long and devastating that tunnel might be, and that is a reminder worth sharing with future generations.

For ages 10 and up.

Blue² by Luna Orchid

By Maureen Tai, 12 March 2022

One of the aspirations of this blog has been to champion authentic, memorable stories set in Asia, about Asian children and young adults, and written by Asian – not Asian diaspora – writers. It is fitting that our 200th review should be of such a book. Blue² (ages 13+) by Hong Kong artist and writer, Luna Orchid,* is one of the most unique and authentic, upper middle grade/young adult, verse novels I’ve ever read. That the author also happens to be a dear friend of mine is, rest assured, not the reason for this review. It is because the honest, oft-times gut-wrenching yet compelling depiction of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in working class Hong Kong stayed with me like a haunting memory, long after I turned the last page.

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Flash Review: Moo by Sharon Creech

By Maureen Tai, 20 February 2022

Moo (ages 8+) is a whimsical, heartfelt middle-grade, mixed prose/verse novel about twelve-year old Reena, her little brother Luke, the eccentric, irascible Mrs Falala, and Mrs Falala’s coterie of pets: Paulie the pig, China the cat, Edna the snake, Crockett the parrot, and last but not least, Zora, the ornery, ill-tempered Belted Galloway heifer (phew, that was a long sentence!).

On a whim, Reena’s family relocates from a bright, bustling city to a small, rural town in Maine, near the ocean and mountains. Equally on a whim, Reena and her brother are volunteered by their parents to help Mrs Falala with her chores, three days a week. Initially reluctant, the children soon discover that there is more to Mrs Falala than meets the eye, and that there is a simple cure to Zora’s obstinance, a cure that Reena is determined to administer …

This charming and light-hearted contemporary novel with its text playfully spaced and sometimes, in different fonts, will appeal to young, emerging readers and animal lovers. Parents be forewarned though: this book might very well turn your child into a vegetarian!

Flash Review: Bungee Cord Hair by Ching Yeung Russell

By Maureen Tai, 13 February 2022

Disarmingly titled Bungee Cord Hair (ages 8+) is the middle-grade, verse novel sequel to Tofu Quilt, one of a rare handful of children’s novels set in Hong Kong. Our protagonist, Yeung Ying, is still an aspiring writer, but she is now a tween. She has left her beloved grandmother and extended family behind in Mainland China and rejoined her parents and siblings in 1960s Hong Kong. She was brought over under false pretences, and it is not an easy coming-of-age. Yeung Ying must learn how to live with her immediate family again after being apart for so many years. Being a girl, she has to fight for her education, a right traditionally reserved for boys and for those who can afford school fees. Above all, Yeung Ying discovers that she must shed her Mainland Chinese, “Communist” style of looking and speaking, and look and speak like a Hong Konger in order to escape ridicule and bullying, and to be accepted in her new home. Racism is, sadly, just as prevalent in Asian countries as it is in Western societies. Bungee Cord Hair is the first middle-grade novel I’ve read that candidly depicts how Chinese from the Mainland were historically looked down upon and derided by their (superior) Chinese counterparts in Hong Kong.

The author deftly and thoughtfully weaves into the narrative, elements of Chinese traditions, culture and folklore, creating a charming and compelling read. Yeung Ying’s lyrical account of triumph over adversity is as much an inspirational story for children, in particular girls of Chinese descent, to be resilient even in the most dire of circumstances, as it is an important and authentic first-hand account of life in colonial Hong Kong.