Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Review posted June 4, 2011.
Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. 312 pages.
Starred Review
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children's Fiction

Full disclosure: I met Wendy Shang at KidLitCon09 and liked her very much. She's also a local author, a member of the awesome DC KidLit Book Club, and a volunteer for Fairfax County Public Library -- so an all-round wonderful person! Anyway, I was definitely predisposed to like her book, but I confess I didn't expect to love it like I did. In fact, I checked it out as soon as I saw the library had ordered it, but I found myself putting off reading it. I expected some sort of problem-novel book about being Chinese in America.

I decided I really should read my friend's book, and chose it as my first choice for the 2011 48-Hour Book Challenge. And I was completely delighted with it! Yes, okay, it does have issues about a sixth-grader being Chinese in America. But mostly, it's a great story about an American kid whose sixth-grade year does not turn out as she expects it to.

Lucy Wu has been looking forward for ages to the day when her older sister Regina, the one everyone thinks is so perfect, moves out of their shared bedroom and goes to college. But Lucy's hopes come crashing down when she learns that her grandmother's long-lost younger sister, Yi Po, is going to come visit for several months. And the only place where she can sleep is that bed Regina vacated in Lucy's room.

Then Talent Chang tells Lucy's mother that her mother is starting Chinese school on Saturday mornings. Never mind that Lucy has basketball practice at that time. Her parents see this as her chance to learn how to communicate better with Yi Po. Lucy loves basketball. She lives and breathes basketball.

When I tell people that I play basketball, I usually get two kinds of reactions. The first is an awkward pause while my entire height of four-foot-nothing gets examined up one side and down the other, followed by something like, "O-kaaaay. What other sports do you like?" The second, while more positive, is really not any better. It's a big fishy grin, followed by, "Oh! Just like Yao Ming!" Like I have anything in common with a seven-and-ahalf-foot-tall male basketball player, other than the fact that we're both Chinese.

But I love basketball. The day I got the hang of dribbling the ball through my legs counts as one of the best days of my life, and that feeling I get when I know the ball's going in because everything has lined up perfectly is the greatest rush. To me, getting the ball to an open teammate on a no-look pass is a thing of beauty. And tell me there's something more exciting than the last few seconds of a tied-up basketball game where tenths of a second count.

So when they announce there's going to be a basketball game this year between the teachers and the sixth-graders, and the Captain of the sixth grade team will be chosen by who can shoot the most free throws, well of course Lucy wants to be Captain, and her best friend Madison is sure she'll win. But then she learns that Sloane Connors wants to be Captain.

She's the head of a little group that Madison and I secretly call the Amazons, and they can make your life miserable in a thousand different ways.

Lucy does not want to cross Sloane, but unfortunately Sloane already found out that Lucy was planning to try out for Captain. Lucy wishes Madison would let her be a coward and give up, but Madison is adamant that Lucy will win and lead the team to victory.

I was going to just dip into this book while I was focusing on writing reviews, but I found myself reading it eagerly. And when I finished, I had a big smile on my face. This is a lovely, well-crafted book. Lucy comes across as a very real American kid. Yeah, she complains a bit much about having her great-aunt move into her room -- but honestly, what American kid wouldn't? There's a boy she likes, and you won't believe what happens when she gets a chance to have a good conversation with him. (This was beautiful, in a catastrophic way, but I won't give it away.)

All the elements are woven together expertly -- Lucy's passion for basketball, her relationships with her family members, her birthday party plans, Chinese school and the girl Talent Chang who is annoyingly perfect but wants to be friends, school and the mean girls going after her, embarrassment over the ways she and her family are different, and even some cross-cultural awareness as to what Yi Po went through during the Cultural Revolution. It's all in there and told in an engaging, warm, and delightful way.

And it's all woven together with the story of a Chinese idiom that illustrates that things often turn out quite different than you expect. Bad things often turn out to be good, and good things often turn out to be bad.

Well, with this book, I was predisposed to like it, and it turned out to be delightful beyond my expectations. I wonder if there is an idiom for that?