The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang was a juvenile fiction darling in 2011, and I think it still is in 2012. The local Library finally managed a copy and while I was eager to read it, to see what all the fuss was about, I was also skeptical. Why I am this contrary? Many speculate. Good news is that this little darling of a book is worth all the fuss.
In this humorous and heartfelt debut about a split cultural identity, nothing goes according to plan for sixth-grader Lucy Wu.
Lucy Wu, aspiring basketball star and interior designer, is on the verge of having the best year of her life. She’s ready to rule the school as a sixth grader and take over the bedroom she has always shared with her sister. In an instant, though, her plans are shattered when she finds out that Yi Po, her beloved grandmother’s sister, is coming to visit for several months — and is staying in Lucy’s room. Lucy’s vision of a perfect year begins to crumble, and in its place come an unwelcome roommate, foiled birthday plans, and Chinese school with the awful Talent Chang.—Publisher’s Comments
This is Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s debut in children’s books, and while we tend to make room in our expectations for debut efforts, you needn’t bother here. Nor should you feel like this is a typical comedic telling of a pre-adolescent whose every attempt at having the perfect school year is thwarted kind of story. A big divergence is how the author does not sanction Lucy for having the feelings or reactions that she does. The progression of the story and in Lucy’s growth as a character isn’t driven by a moral, but rather the more natural interventions of life. Any mechanizations to create the direction and ending of the story is gorgeously masked. Much of this can be attributed to consistent characters whose flaws allow them conflict and thus change. You’d think these would be givens in storytelling. In this case, you hear no creaks of the rudder. It was lovely.
I like that Lucy is a basketball player. It’s nice to have a strong female lead who loves sports and plays one well. She doesn’t let her height or cultural expectations get in the way—or she tries to not let them. There is a bully. I swear, reading this had me reliving the daughter’s school year. Her best friend Z is an ambitious young lady who is good at soccer. Unfortunately she gets in the way of another girl in the class (and on the team) and, yeah, there are really awful children out there. Sloane is familiar. And Lucy’s response is believable. Much of the success in the novel is how well Shang replicates the settings and the characters.
There is a lot going on in the story, but nothing more than the usual complications, and Shang weaves them together into a well-paced and compelling read. It is easy to sympathize with Lucy, and we find ourselves coming to the appropriate realizations along with her. That people aren’t always how we make them out to be, even though we hate when people make assumptions about us. And some people can be counted on to be just how we expect, for good or ill.
The friendships, the cute romance (of comedic proportions), the bullying, the parents, and lovely lovely siblings, these are all wonderful ingredients that enrich the reading experience, but the grandmother’s sister, Yi Po, is an especially wonderful part of the read. Lucy’s brother serves us well as a history buff (the most apparent device). He helps Lucy understand the things their grandmother and her sister went through in China. Despite (or because of) sometimes humiliating experiences with Yi Po Lucy does find the value and familiarity Yi Po has to offer. It doesn’t hurt the story either that the elder woman understands Lucy more clearly than her own parents do. Their relationship speaks a lot to the value of learning and maintaining tradition and making good use of your passions and opportunities. Lucy isn’t only Chinese, she is American, too. She isn’t only American, but Chinese, too. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu makes space for both.
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu has a lot to offer the Chinese American reader as Shang populates the book with characters who struggle with or reside in various roles the reader might find (or have found) themselves in. And yet she rescues anyone from being too much the token character. Except maybe Sloane, which only adds to her pathetic-ness. For those not experiencing the Chinese American culture, or any immediate immigrant story, part of the value of reading about protagonists who are different from the reader is how they can inform the reader about common misperceptions and share a glimpse into the conflicts that may be unfamiliar. They also reveal the many similarities, ways in which most everyone can commiserate via common human and cultural issues.
There is a humor and sincerity in the story-telling, every angst and blush and sulk is felt, and every triumph and moment of affection, too. It is a fun story with a great primary character and supporting cast. Change, though difficult and unwanted, can be good, a divergence in course can be just as rewarding as the paths anticipated—especially where finding new family and friends is concerned. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a satisfying read, start to finish.
recommendations…ages 8-13, girls and boys, fans of sports and basketball in particular, those interested in non-white protagonists, multi-cultural, multi-generational reads, historical aspects, humor, and contemporary late grade- or middle-school drama. Fans of Jenny Han, Pam Munoz-Ryan, and Grace Lin to name a few that came to mind.
of note: I read this soon after Dumpling Days by Grace Lin. They both hit on some of the same historical events and involve dumplings. Even though their stories are different, they are both charming and if you were going for a good cultural grouping…
Scholastic Press, 2011.
hardcover, 312 pages