If you want to gauge the merit of a children’s author it’s easy as pie. Simply hand them a piece of paper and a pencil. Sit them down in a comfortable chair in front of a table. Now ask them to create a good easy-to-read book for children. I am personally convinced that this is probably the most difficult thing you can ask an author to do. Harder than asking them to write a romantic vampire novel. Harder than a child-friendly mystery series. Easy books (I should say GOOD easy books) are an acquired talent. Some authors whip them out so easily it shocks the senses (see: Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggy books). Others struggle with the format. When I heard that author Grace Lin, master of the novel, the early chapter book, and the picture book, was trying her hand at the easy reader format I was concerned. Past success is no indication of future talent. Could she pull it off? She could. Grace Lin has given us Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!, a book in the same vein as your Frog & Toad or Amelia Bedelia tales. Which is to say, a future classic.
Six very short stories tell tales about these twin girls. Ling and Ting look alike and sound alike (and sometimes even dress alike) but they are not exactly the same, in spite of the world claiming the contrary. Case in point is the story “The Haircuts” which tells the tale of how calm Ling gets her haircut without any fuss or bother, whereas fidgety Ting cannot sit still. One particularly unfortunate sneeze later and her bangs are so eclectic that the reader has no difficulty distinguishing between the girls for the rest of the book (one wonders what Ms. Lin will do if she expands this book into a series). Other stories discuss making dumplings, going to the library, using chopsticks, magic tricks, and silly storytelling.
The writing is simple, to the point, and pretty darn good. The jokes are a particular strength. Lin can show unfortunate haircuts, which some kids will find funny on the one hand. At the same time her dialogue can be very amusing (particularly to adult readers). For example, Ting comes in to see Ling wearing a big magic hat. She asks why she is wear it. “ ‘It is a magic hat,’ Ling says. ‘I am wearing it because I can do magic.’ ‘You can?’ Ting says. ‘Can you use your magic to get a smaller hat?’ “ I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. And in writing these stories Lin has to be amusing in as few words as possible. No mean task, but she does a fine job.
Ling and Ting also seem to exist in that ideal grown-up free world where a kid can walk to the library on her own and no one bats an eye. They create their own dumplings and have picnics without the presence of any other living being, older or otherwise. Really, the only other person who even makes an appearance in this book is the barber at the story’s start. I can see a lot of kids digging this bizarre near grown-upless world.
The art is less complicated than Grace’s usual fare. It’s not as if Ms. Lin’s artistic style is usually chock full of hidden details. But to match the simple words in Ling and Ting Grace has given the book very straightforward illustrations. Clear black outlines. Bright colors. Look carefully and you’ll also see a whole host of tiny details snuck in here and there. For example, anytime the girls are casually holding a book while they talk to one another, that book is usually a previous Lin title. When Ting traipses off to the library, Ling is left at home reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. And when the two settle down to have a picnic under the great blue sky (with milk and ubiquitous chocolate cupcakes at that) copies of The Year of the Rat and The Year of the Dog are strewn about, open midway. And one of the book’s details is even subtler than that. Take a gander at the dedication page. Once there you’ll find that Grace has thanked seven different pairs of twins. Clearly she’s done her research.
Ah, Grace Lin. What will you do when there are no more worlds to conquer? I guess the world of board books and teen novels remain (extra points if you combine the two). I would still like her to write her customary middle grade fare, but she can certainly do an easy reader or two if she puts her mind to it. And let’s face it, the easy reader section of any library tends to be a little white. Now we’ve some diversity and a new series that’s going to appeal to a bunch of kids still grasping simple sentences. Best that you buy it yourself. Lin can do what few others have mastered.
On shelves July 1st.
Misc: For those of you desirous of a galley of this book, publicity guru and all around great gal Victoria Stapleton will gladly send you a copy if you email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.