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.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf, adapted by Kochka & Olivier Latyk

By Maureen Tai, 10 February 2022

During a recent trip to my hometown in Malaysia, I visited the shamelessly Instagrammable BookXcess @ Kong Heng and my browsing was rewarded with a gorgeous picture book, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (ages 6+). I confess to not knowing at the time that the fable-like story was over a century old, and that its author, Selma Lagerlöf (1858 – 1940), is legendary in her native Sweden, being the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature (as she did in 1909). I had been attracted primarily to the book’s exquisite paper-cut pages and how cleverly they overlaid the whimsical illustrations on the cover and inside of the book. A blatant case of judging a book by its cover.

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Flash Review: Dog by Daniel Pennac, translated by Sarah Adams

By Maureen Tai, 16 January 2022

Published almost two decades ago, Dog (ages 10+) is a funny, charming and absorbing coming-of-age, middle-grade novel about an unattractive mongrel dog’s search for a human owner he can train. After surviving death by drowning as an infant and the tragic loss of Black Nose, his adoptive mother, heartbroken Dog leaves the rubbish tip that has been his puppyhood home and heads into town for the first time. Dog is so intoxicated by the new sights, sounds and smells that he forgets to be cautious and ends up in the dog pound. All seems lost until a tiny, strong-willed, red-headed girl sweeps into Dog’s life with the force of a hurricane. Plum, as the little girl is christened by Dog, is the owner of his dreams. Little does Dog know that his adventures are just beginning …

Dog is a well-paced, whimsical tale peppered with colourful characters that will keep younger and older readers alike – and in particular, animal lovers – riveted from start to finish. Proving that, with a little bit of canine (and feline) ingenuity, even the hardest of human hearts can be trained to love.

Flash Review: Where The Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

By Maureen Tai, 9 January 2022

In the middle-grade realistic fiction novel, Where the Watermelons Grow (ages 10+), twelve-year-old Della bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. Pest infestations and an unseasonal, prolonged drought are causing the crops on her father’s farm – including their legendary watermelons – to wither and die. Della’s baby sister, Mylie – aptly christened “a pistol” by Miss Lorena, a kindly newcomer to the family’s small North Carolina town – is a handful, and then some. But by far, the young girl’s biggest worry is that her beloved Mama’s schizophrenia is back, and boy, is it back with a vengence.

With evocative and unflinchingly honest prose, Baldwin tells the heart-rending story of a girl desperate to find a solution to a very grown-up problem, all by herself. None of the complicated emotions – sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety – that come from having a parent with a mental illness are downplayed, none of the challenges sugar-coated. Ultimately, our charming and likeable heroine learns how to better carry her burdens, realising that there are times when you need a little help from family and friends, some poetry from Emily Dickinson, and perhaps, just perhaps, a touch of bee-honey magic.

Unusual for this genre, but similar to some other middle-grade books we have previously reviewed such as the breathtaking Wolf Hollow, the story doesn’t end in tidy, magical, Disney-esque fashion. For me, this is where the real strength of the storytelling lies: in the ability to paint a vivid, realistic and compelling picture for younger readers that is hopeful as it is bleak, and healing as it is heartbreaking.