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The Year of the Book (An Anna Wang novel)

Review

The Year of the Book (An Anna Wang novel)

written by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

Fourth-grader Anna Wang wishes she didn’t have to go to school. Not only does it interrupt from her favorite activity --- reading --- her friendships have gotten incredibly complicated, as Anna’s best friend, Laura, now spends all her time with a mean girl named Allison. Standing with the crossing guard Ray, Anna wishes she could stay with him rather than “go to the fourth grade playground where Laura and Allison stand so close that there’s no space left for me.”

Instead, Anna turns to books. Books never reject her. The stories they tell contain scope for the imagination, whether it’s the survival tips of Jean Craighead George’s MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN (about a boy living in the wilderness with a hawk) or the inter-dimensional adventures of Meg and Charles Wallace in Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME. What they don’t tell her is how to stop being embarrassed or how to make people like her.

"Author Andrea Cheng deftly captures the viewpoint of a precocious child struggling to bridge the social gap with kids her own age.... THE YEAR OF THE BOOK both celebrates readers and encourages them to take the next step to connect with the very real plots and people that populate our individual worlds."

Author Andrea Cheng deftly captures the viewpoint of a precocious child struggling to bridge the social gap with kids her own age. Anna is very good with adults who appreciate her creativity and encourage her natural talents for art. But she has a hard time making friends with other children, in part because she cannot decode the subtle social cues and demand for conformity that signify group belonging. For example, early in THE YEAR OF THE BOOK, she sews herself a lunch bag out of leftover scraps of fabric from her bedspread. The adults in her life praise her creativity, but the kids make fun of her eccentric choice for accessories. Later on in the book, Anna decides to forego trick-or-treating altogether rather than give into pressure to go as part of a group costume dictate by Allison.

Anna’s mother is frustrated by her daughter’s stubbornness, but we gradually discover that Anna’s mother has challenges of her own. Anna is American-born Chinese. Like her father, she speaks no Chinese, but Anna’s Chinese-born mother perseveres to bridge the gap between different languages and cultures. Anna even attends Chinese school on weekends, which she resents because she does not understand the teacher and finds it difficult to excel. When she announces that she does not want to go to Chinese school anymore, her mother asks, “Then what will you do when we go to China?”

“Dad manages and he doesn’t know Chinese,” Anna says.

“And that is very difficult for him,” says Anna’s mother. “A Chinese face but no Chinese words is not easy.”

Anna is embarrassed by her mother’s English, in which she frequently misplaces words or mixes up common phrases. When an adult neighbor comments on how much Anna has grown, her mother responds, “She is a weed,” rather than “she is growing like a weed.” It’s only gradually that she comes to realize that the frustration she feels with Chinese is the same challenge her mother faced in learning English. Or that the books she loves are a way to connect with new friends.

One of the book's most touching scenes is when a classmate comes to stay with Anna’s family for a few days as her own family is undergoing some difficulties. Initially, Anna resents the interruption away from her own interests and projects, but she gradually opens up to this friend in need. Instead of silently reading to herself at bedtime, she starts the book she is reading from the beginning and reads aloud until her troubled friend falls asleep.

Charmingly illustrated by Abigail Halpin, THE YEAR OF THE BOOK is filled with pictures and instructions that help illuminate Anna’s activities. The language level and subject matter are perfect for the intended age group of 6-9, and the book is great for emerging independent readers. Cheng brings her experiences as an ESL teacher to teach some very basic Chinese and illuminate what it's like to learn a new language.

My only criticism (and it is mild) is that some of the books Anna reads are a bit sophisticated for the intended audience of THE YEAR OF THE BOOK. Even classics like E.L. Konigsburg’s FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER might be a stretch for kids just learning to read. Other titles, like Jacqueline Woodson’s HUSH (about a murder witness who goes into the witness protection program) or MY LOUISIANA SKY by Kimberly Willis Holt (about a girl dealing with her mentally disabled mother), might be deemed inappropriate for newly minted readers. Nevertheless, it is rare to find a chapter book that so deftly captures the inner life of its protagonist in such simple and absorptive language. THE YEAR OF THE BOOK does not talk down to its readers or make any assumptions about what they should or should not be reading. Instead, it finds a way to bridge the many challenges Anna must deal with, whether it’s relationships with friends and family, or how to be your own person without excluding others.

People often describe reading as an "escape." I’ve always resented this phrase because it makes reading sound like a self-indulgent vacation. For me, reading has always been a much more engaging activity than simple amusement. Not only is it a way to explore new vistas and ideas that otherwise would not have been available to me in the confines of my home, reading also has been essential to my education in being human. I suspect that Andrea Cheng knows this, too. THE YEAR OF THE BOOK both celebrates readers and encourages them to take the next step to connect with the very real plots and people that populate our individual worlds. 

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on June 30, 2012

The Year of the Book (An Anna Wang novel)
(Year of the Book #1)
written by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

  • Publication Date: May 22, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
  • ISBN-10: 0547684630
  • ISBN-13: 9780547684635