Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon

When I look for diversity in middle grade literature, it often turns out to be books set in the US with characters from other cultures. The following memoir, by award winning middle grade writer Barbara Brooks Wallace, puts a spin on that. Ms. Wallace was born in China to US parents, and spent most of her first 15 years there! For our diversity today, we'll find out what it's like to be the "foreign" one!

7188376Wallace, Barbara Brooks. Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon
Commonwealth Books, LLC (July 31, 2009)
Copy purchased from

Growing up in the 1920s and 30s was very different from children's experiences today, and growing up in China has a whole different set of issues. This engaging memoir tells of the Brooks family's experiences living  in China because of the father's work with Standard Oil. They lived in several different locations, at one point two blocks from the fabled Yangtze River. There was no air conditioning in those days, so the best place to be in the summers was the mountains (where the children would be carried up in sedan chairs by coolies!) or the beach. There are countless other examples of the ways in which ordinary life was different in China at that time, from ordinary events such as sleeping under mosquito netting and speculating about the mysterious, wealthy neighbors, to historical ones such as General Chiang K'ai-shek's communist "witch hunt" that students today will find different and fascinating.

We do get a good look at what the expatriate life was like, and learn about places in China that probably no longer exist. I would love to see the Ching Ming apartments in Hankow, decorated with the Chinese manufactured furniture purchased by Bobbie's mother (who left Russia to live with relatives in Shanghai) or be able to stroll through the streets of Shanghai before the Japanese invaded. The country clubs and British schools are part of a pre-war China that quickly faded in the same way that servants and English Manor houses (ala Downton Abbey) went by the wayside in the UK.  While well-to-do families in some countries today still have maids and other servants, it is a very odd concept to most middle class students in the US, so reading about amahs, house boys and other servants will be a revelation to today's your readers.

The best part, for me, was reading about the facets of childhood that were typical of the time period. Tiger Time annuals, dolls and teddy bears, and even the way that Bobbie's poor health was treated all seem so unheard of to us today, and are a good reminder that the world changes.

Readers of Ms. Wallace's Victorian mysteries will be pleased to know more about the author's life, and this would be a good resource for author reports as well. More than that, it is a delightfully distracting look at a world that no longer exists, told by a master storyteller looking back fondly on her life.

Watch a delightful video of Ms. Wallace reading from a previous book, Diary of a Little Devil. Pangea also has a wonderful album of photos I wish had been in the book available on their website.

Confession. I'm usually good about reading ARCS in the order that they will be published, but I read this the week before winter break because it was a frustrating week of tech problems and this was the only book that really looked good. (Love the cover--I'm currently in my holiday sweater from 1985 and a cream, red, green and blue plaid pleated skirt!) I post books on Goodreads as I read them, so apologize for the really early entry!

Bustard, Anne. Anywhere But Paradise
April 14th 2015 by EgmontUSA
E ARC from

Peggy Sue is not happy that her family has moved from Texas to Hawaii in 1960 because of her father's job, especially since her cat, Howdy, has to remain in quarantine for a very long time. She misses her friends and her grandparents, and has to deal with a mother who has chronic headaches and doesn't spend a lot of time with her. To make matters worse, a girl at school, Kiki, continuarlly bullies her and calls her "haole", threatening to beat Peggy Sue up. The few bright spots include a new friend, Malina, hula lessons, and a budding sewing business. School is okay, other than having Kiki in her home ec class, and having to partner with her because Kiki has trouble sewing. Howdy's health is an ongoing concern, as is her mother's, but when there is an earthquake off the coast of Chile while her parents are on another island and she's staying with Malina's family, Peggy Sue knows that the most important thing is to have her family safe and together.
Strengths: I've been looking for historical fiction set in the 1960s, and this was quite good, bringing in information about living in Hawaii. Other than Graham Salisbury's books, I can't think of others set in Hawaii! There is enough girl drama to pull in readers who don't care as much for history. Lots of good details about life in Hawaii, and even though Kiki is the bully, there are some good reasons given for her actions, and she does improve a bit. I liked that it was important but not central to the story, and it's one of the few recent bullying episodes in books that are realistic and make sense.
Weaknesses: This could have had more detail about daily life in 1960. The description of phoning the grandparents long distance was good-- modern children don't understand the concept. I wanted to know more about why the family moved, and more about the mother's illness as well.

There was one historical inaccuracy that seems petty. Peggy Sue goes to the five and dime to get fabric and comes out clutching her purchases in a PLASTIC bag. In my mind, this was as wrong as her hopping into a space ship-- I worked in a fabric store in the early 80s, and know we had paper bags for everything. I don't really remember plastic bags being used until I had my own apartment in the mid 1980s, something that is backed up by this article:

Nitpicky. This is why I am fearful of ever writing a book of historical fiction!


Iron Guy Carl said...

You're so right--no one used plastic bags back then. (I was 7 years old in 1960) Nor plastic bottles. Paper bags and glass bottles only. Do you remember taking glass bottles back to the store and getting five cents for each one? If you do, you don't have to say so!

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