Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Publication Date: 2010
Eleven-year-old Kim Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong following her father’s death, her mother’s bout with tuberculosis, and in response to Hong Kong’s impending return to Chinese rule. With the “help” of her mother’s older sister Paula, Kim and her mother arrive in New York, speaking little English and owing debt to Paula for the trip. Paula arranges lodging in a squalid apartment with no heat and lots of roaches. Kim’s mother slaves in a Chinatown sweatshop, and after school each day, Kim goes to the sweatshop to help her mother with the backbreaking work so she is able to meet her quota.
A light in Kim’s day becomes her time at school. Through a rare moment of generosity from her aunt, Kim is able to use another mailing address as home to enable her to attend a better school. Although her English is still developing and she struggles with social studies and literature, Kim’s scores in math and science are beyond exceptional. With her aunt’s jealousy at Kim’s academic success threatening her future options, Kim must work harder both at school and at the sweatshop to seek out a better life for herself and her mother.
Kim lives two separate lives – one as a brilliant student and one as a sweatshop worker. Annette, the one person who befriends her in elementary school, has no idea of the squalor that Kim lives in, and Matt, another sweatshop child employee, is unaware of her possibility of future potential. At some point, these two existences must collide.
According to Google (who knows everything, right?), there are over 600,000 to 1,000,000 fictional books published every year. Even though I read a lot, I am bound to miss a few and I completely missed this book when it come out. What was I doing in 2010?! I loved this book! I finished it in a day; I simply could not put it down. Although the book is a work of fiction, the author’s bio indicates that she too was born in Hong Kong and worked in a sweatshop with her family when she arrived in Brooklyn. The details and raw emotion are so believable in the simplicity in which they are shared.
I think what I enjoyed most about this book was that it felt like autobiography, without all the unnecessary drama. The author’s voice simple tells the story, without judgement or analysis, and in that direct approach, the harshness and compassion of life unfold. It is a beautiful story.
Who might like this book:
Once again, this would be a great book for a book club but also for young adults. I think that sometimes teen literature over-emphasizes the brutality of life and tries to make some kind of social or moral commentary. This novel simply presents the story, as is, and thus opens the path for some really great discussions.
The style of writing makes it a quick read; although be forewarned, once you start, you will not want to put it down.