After finishing this gem of a book I am anxious to share it with young readers as a read-aloud selection. The story revolves around a young girl living in Ohio whose mother is Chinese and whose father is not. She has just turned eleven and has been invited to travel to Shanghai to visit the rest of her mother and grandmother’s family in China.
Told in free verse with the characteristically engaging illustrations of Ed Young, Xiao Mei is not sure she wants to travel such a long distance by herself to a destination where she knows no one and only a few words of the Chinese language.
Her anxiety about the trip is portrayed in genuine and accessible language. Readers will identify easily with her unease at traveling such a long distance alone and her fear of being unable to communicate in a place totally unfamiliar to her.
She discovers she is able to identify with the feeling of family she experiences through her relatives. Although the physical customs and circumstances are different than those at home, her family values remain constant half a world away. Her fear slowly transforms into a wonder, appreciation for and joy in both the people she meets and the differences in food, language, history and scenery China offers.
Her visit also strengthens her appreciation for her grandmother, who moved from China to the United States many years ago. She even finds upon her return home that she misses her aunts and uncles, and the sounds of the streets in Shanghai.
The story is one that takes the reader on a journey of discovery: a discovery of family history, personal connections from our past and our present. Just as importantly, I think it is also a journey of independence. A young girl’s growing confidence in her own ability to learn and experience new things, a sense of accomplishment with which we can all identify.
**An extra note for readers is a pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book (rather that the end) to the Chinese words in the story. I found this extremely helpful for myself and I intend to use it when I read it aloud to students.