{book} the great wall of lucy wu

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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.

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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…

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The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Scholastic Press, 2011.

hardcover, 312 pages

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Carl V. says:

    This one sounds great. Despite the fact that I season each of my reading years with a dose of YA, this is probably not one I would have picked up, but your review really draws me in. I like it when an author can take a story that has been told many times before (all coming of age tales share some similarities) and can tell it so well with their own unique fingerprints on it. Skillful storytelling is something I appreciate regardless of the genre or target audience.

    I read Paige by Page recently and one of the things I was struck by about the book, and my subsequent reads of Lissa Evans’ and Delia Shermans’ coming of age YA stories was how the coming of age story still affects me at my age. I’ve got a post idea about that whirling around in my head and I suspect I’m just going to need to write it and get it out even though it isn’t coming together in a way to truly reflect my feelings. I’ll have to see if my library has this one.

  2. L says:

    I don’t think I would classify this one as coming-of-age per se. Lucy being in 6th is perhaps coming into her own in the family, learning her voice and considering others in her family in new lights, a precursor to that later encounter with “wow! we are all adults now?!”

    I am with you in that even with juvenile or ya labels on books, they still offer things that can resonate with adults. and can still show me things, getting new perspectives.

    you should write that post–and share it. I think there is this sense when younger that you will arrive somewhere. there may be challenges, but you are established in a sense, your identity a more fixed point. maybe it is so for some. I think part of being open as a human means a continuation of conflict and growth. also, we may be ‘established’ or into our own in some ways, but in others because of time or circumstance may still yet be evolving. It was weird, reading Barnes’ ‘A Sense of an Ending’ because while he was remembering coming-of-age as an adolescent, he was also coming-of-age in another sense during the present as an older gentleman. It is as if he was questioning what it was he knew and learned from that point in his life. now you are getting me started… 🙂

    I enjoy your comments.

    1. Carl V. says:

      I tend to have a very broad definition of “coming of age” and I need to find/invent another way to categorize this. What I tend to mean is not solely the transition from childhood to adolescence or adolescence to adulthood but more of the idea of ‘transition’ as a whole, which is more of the advent of awareness and change as it is the move from childhood to adulthood. I’m glad you pointed that out as I do tend to use that description incorrectly. Its okay sometimes to appropriate words and sayings as one’s own, but this idea is pretty locked in and I would hate to undo anything I’m trying to communicate by setting off the “he doesn’t even understand the terminology” bells and whistles.

      I will definitely write that post. I’m wanting to do one on “summer reads” which focuses largely, if not solely, on YA fiction here soon and this will be a natural precursor to that post or a follow up to it, depending on time and how I want to structure things.

      Where this all started was really your recommendation of, and my reading, Paige by Page. On one hand the book was a great treatise on creativity and the hard work it takes to overcome natural lethargy and fear and self-doubt to exercise your creativity. On the other hand it was a more traditional “coming of age” story as Paige struggled with her identity and how to step out and exercise some of the independence that comes with growing up. The day I finished it I went out to mow my yard and was struck by how much this book affected me given that I was as far away from the target audience as you could possibly get. Or at least close to that end of the spectrum. I’m not a child, not a teenager, not a female, etc… The question I kept asking myself as I mindless went up and down the yard mowing was “Do we ever stop ‘coming of age’?” And the answer that came to mind was “no!”. Which led into this whole internal examination of why I have deeply loved Labyrinth so much for so many years, and why similar fantasy-oriented and non-fantasy oriented “coming of age” tales always strike such a powerful cord with me. Right after that I read The Freedom Maze and that kept this thought train going full-speed ahead.

      On top of that the whole art/creativity message of Paige by Page also struck a cord. In that respect it reminded me of Kabuki: The Alchemy and the post that I wrote that touches on some of these same themes:

      http://www.stainlesssteeldroppings.com/kabuki-the-alchemy-david-mack

      It is odd because while I would not rate Paige by Page nearly as well executed as David Mack’s book (Paige by Page had a few issues, pardon the pun) I was really and truly moved by reading it and it spoke to me on a more personal level than I ever would have expected while I was reading it. So thank you for your marvelous review.

      There…now you’ve got me started. 🙂

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