Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

“The air was thick and tasted of metal.  I was deafened by the roar of a hundred Singer sewing machines.  Dark heads were bent over each one.  No one looked up; they only fed reams of cloth through the machines, racing from piece to piece without pausing to cut off the connecting thread.  Almost all the seamstresses had their hair up, although some strands had escaped and were plastered to the sides of their necks and cheeks by the sweat.  They wore air filters over their mouths.  There was a film of dirty red dust on the filters, the color of meat exposed to air for too long.”

Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when Kim is only eleven.  Her mother takes a position at a sweatshop, working for relatives who helped with her immigration papers.  In order to make payments on the debt they owe for the immigration assistance and still have enough money for food, even Kimberly must work in the factory after school.

For years, they live in squalor, squatting illegally in an unheated, roach-infested building.   Because of the nature of their work (they are paid-illegally-for each skirt they finish, rather than an hourly wage), Kimberly and her mother calculate the prices of all their purchases in skirts.  A dress for graduation is 1,500 skirts. A gift for a friend is 133.  Determined to improve their living conditions, Kimberly works hard at school, gradually learning English and soaring to the top of her class.  Her scholastic abilities earns her an unprecedented full scholarship to a prestigious private school, where she struggles to keep up with the classwork while concealing her poverty from her classmates.

This story is an Alex award winner! Alex awards are given to books that aren’t necessarily written for young adults, but may be especially appealing to them.  I’ve always been partial to Alex winners, and I was hoping this one had been nominated, too.  I’m glad to see it won!  The story is compelling; expect chilling descriptions of a workplace injury and page after page of a poverty so extreme that it is hard to imagine. I was genuinely sickened when I read about Kimberly’s apartment, and how she would sleep on the side of the bed nearest the wall, because she was less afraid of mice than her mother was, and wanted to give her the small gift of a more restful sleep by taking the spot nearer the mice .    There were many tender moments between Kimberly and her mother; I loved the portrayal of their relationship.  They were genuinely protective of each other and clung together in a threatening and confusing world.

Not only does this book explore issues that are often misunderstood or not discussed, like sweatshop labor, illegal immigration, and extreme poverty, but it is also very well-written.  The characters are realistically portrayed, and Kimberly’s storytelling changes and matures as she ages.  I picked it up and was reading it even while I followed my sister around at the grocery store; I just didn’t want to stop.  Even better: the author, Jean Kwok, was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Brooklyn, and worked with her family in a sweatshop as a child.  While this book is fiction, it was inspired by her real-life experiences.  If you’d like to know which parts of the story really happened, you can check out the FAQs on her website.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://jeankwok.net/index.shtml

Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. Riverhead Books: New York, 2010. 303 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked the description of Kimberly’s experiences living in a new country, and you are an older reader, you might like Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  Younger readers who are interested in the experiences of Chinese-Americans could try the amazing graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese.  For another portrayal of the grueling work immigrants often do, younger readers might like Esperanza RisingThis is one of my favorite genres to read, and if you’d like more recommendations (or if you have some yourself), please let me know!

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The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

“When the day came, Eduardo received the newborn into his hands as though it were his own child.  His eyes blurred as he laid it in a crib and reached for the needle that would blunt its intelligence.

‘Don’t fix that one,’ said Lisa, hastily catching his arm. ‘It’s a Matteo Alacran.  They’re always left intact.'”

Matteo is a clone, formed from human DNA and raised in the womb of a cow.  Unlike other clones, though, his intelligence is not surgically limited: for a clone, he’s very fortunate, enjoying all the privileges of a real human, such as an education.  This is because he’s the special clone of El Patron, the ancient lord of the country Opium.  Opium lies between the United States and the former country of Mexico: a vast tract of poppies, eejits (computer-chipped slaves who work the fields), a set of terrifying bodyguards, and the powerful family of El Patron.

Clones, as Matteo slowly learns, are considered sub-human, monstrous, and only good for one thing: growing transplantable organs.  As El Patron’s body ages and begins to deteriorate, Matteo’s organs will be harvested, and given to El Patron.  This process has been repeated many times in the past, allowing El Patron to reach the age of 148.  If Matt wants to live past his preteen years, he’s got to escape.  Furthermore, if there is any hope for justice for the thousand of enslaved eejit workers, who are all captured illegal immigrants, Matt must face the sinister system that brought him into existence.

This near-future science fiction deals with issues of illegal immigration, drug empires, cloning, and what constitutes being a human.  The action builds steadily, and spans various settings and many years, but never feels drawn-out or stretched.  Nancy Farmer is also a genius at creating seemingly-impossible-to-escape situations, and then magically unraveling them with a plausible, but unexpected solution.  Especially appealing for me is Matt’s gradual realization of the implications of being a clone: readers watch him develop a full consciousness of his identity throughout the book.  This is great writing, friends!

I should mention that Farmer has already written two other Newbery Honor books, and they are also incredible.  When I was ten, my best friend handed me her copy of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, also written by Farmer.  It’s one of those books I remember with startling clarity, because it shocked my childish brain, which until that point was only accustomed to the Bobbsey Twins  and The Baby-sitters Club series, or perhaps the occasional abridged classic.  (Does anyone remember the illustrated and abridged Hound of the Baskervilles?)  Anyway, that was an amazing book, and this one is too!  It won the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, and the Printz Honor, and it is an ALA Best Book, too!  The front cover sparkles with all the medals, and the text inside will blow your mind.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.nancyfarmerwebsite.com

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse, 2002.  380 pp.  Ages 11 and up.

 

 

 

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate

“’I’ll let you get settled’, Dave says,

But first I’ll give you some lessons…

Number one, he says,

always lock your door.

Ganwar, show Kek what a key looks like.’

In my old home,

my real home,

my father kept us safe.

We had no need for locks.

Kek is a refugee from Sudan.  He has been resettled from the refugee camp, and sent to live with his aunt and cousin in Minnesota.  In Sudan, he used to live with his parents and brother.  However, when the men with guns came, only his mother survived, and now she is missing.

It is certainly a big task to adjust to the new surroundings, and it is even more challenging when you miss your home country and you’re worried that you might never see your mother again.  But Kek is an optimist at heart, and he tries his best to keep his hopes (and those of his aunt and cousin) up.  For example, back in Sudan, cows were integral to life-very prized possessions.  In Minnesota, Kek passes a scrawny old cow ambling around a tumbledown farm, and somehow convinces the elderly woman there to let him help her care for her cow. That’s Kek for you:  naively charming; scarred from the traumas of his past, but not hardened.  You can sense the resilience of the very young in his voice.

The story is written in verse, but just like in the novel Sold, it really works well.  The sparse words capture Kek’s innocence, heartache, and hopeful moments with equal precision, and his voice feels both accurate and endearing.  The ending is also sweet, but not saccharine.  I enjoyed this book very much, and think it would be an excellent addition to the middle school classroom. For those of you familiar with the wildly popular Animorphs series of the nineties, this is written by the same author.  Here’s what she says about her book:

“In Kek’s story, I hope readers will see the neighbor child with a strange accent, the new kid in class from some faraway land, the child in odd clothes who doesn’t belong.  I hope they see themselves.”

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.katherineapplegate.com/

Applegate, Katherine.  Home of the Brave. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2007.  249 pp.  Grades 6-8.

If you liked this book (and it was the poetry part that you enjoyed), Sold by Patricia McCormick is also written in verse.  However, it’s for an older crowd.  If you like the immigrant aspect, try Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan.