Flash Review: The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

By Maureen Tai, 3 April 2022

In the charming, semi-autobiographical, middle grade novel, The Year of the Dog (ages 8+), the Taiwanese American narrator has a whole year – the animal year she was born in – to find out who she is. Pacy starts the year lucky, making a new best friend at school and welcoming a new baby cousin to her loving, close-knit family. However, a series of disappointments leaves her questioning if her luck has finally run out … Pacy’s endearingly honest, first-person narrative is masterfully interspersed with stories recounted by Pacy’s mother of her own childhood in Taiwan and early immigrant experience in America. While the multi-generational and cross-continental setting, richly coloured with Chinese beliefs and traditions, will resonate with readers of Chinese descent, Lin’s metaphorical and often humorous prose (not to mention her cute line drawings) makes The Year of the Dog a universally appealing and timeless read.

Restart by Gordon Korman

By Ben, 27 March 2022

I first heard of Restart (ages 10+) a middle grade, realistic fiction novel about second chances, from my daughter while she was still in middle school and a keen participant for her school in the Battle of the Books competition. It was the only book she had willingly read several times, and enjoyed each time. So when I found a copy among the piles of donated books in our local secondhand bookshop for kids, Rebooked, I took that as a sign. I had to read it too.

And as usual, Ben came along for the ride.

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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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