I have been telling everyone I know about Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok ever since reading it last spring. It makes a great booktalk (I used it several times at the end of the school year), and would be a satisfying bookgroup choice for either adults or teens.
Publishers Weekly printed a short interview with Kwok in their March 15, 2010 issue where she makes it clear that her character’s experience of coming to America with her mother under less-than-idea circumstances closely mirrors her own experiences as a child.
Maybe it is this personal knowledge that makes it special; plot description hardly does the story justice. My own experience of reading this book, months ago, is still etched in my memory. I sat with my hand over my mouth for the last 60 pages, hoping and wishing that things would turn out well for Kimberly.
Adult/High School–Kimberly Chang moves to Brooklyn from Hong Kong with her mother when she is 11. Her mother was a music teacher in Hong Kong until she lost her husband and fell sick with tuberculosis. Now she is reduced to working for her bitter older sister in a Chinatown sweat shop and living in an unheated, rat and roach-infested apartment. Neither speaks English upon arrival, but Kim learns fast. She goes from failing miserably to winning a full scholarship to a top college prep school. Every day after classes she rushes to the factory to help her mother finish her required quota, working late into the evening. There she befriends Matt, another kid helping his mother. As they get older, they fall in love.
This may sound like a familiar immigrant story, but this one is exceptional. Kim’s narration has a clarity that reflects her own practical and determined character, lightened by her charming way of introducing the occasional Chinese phrase, which she translates for readers. This has the effect of keeping the foreignness of her new life in the forefront, without losing narrative momentum. Indeed, Kwok keeps the story moving forward until it reaches an intensely emotional ending. The feelings between Kim and Matt build to a climax that leaves readers breathless. Teens will want to talk about Kim’s surprising decisions and their consequences.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City