Girl in Translation: You Go, Girl!

BlogHer Review

Oh, I enjoyed this book! I enjoyed it so much I've already recommended Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation to co-workers. See, I'm a teen librarian who's spent the last 4 years working in a poor neighborhood in Queens, surrounded by really bright kids who shoulder the burden of being the only English speakers in their households. Helping an 8-year-old understand a lease agreement or an immunization form or a free-lunch application well enough so she could explain it to her father was one of the many things I found myself doing as an urban librarian that was never ever discussed at library school.

But to read a novel -- a really well-written novel -- about a Hong Kong immigrant who works with her mother at a sweatshop in Brooklyn's Chinatown, who eventually makes it into an exclusive private high school and then Yale, who goes on to rise high in life, and to raise her closest family up with her? What a treat! What a wonderful treat. And yes, I realize that this novel is only semi-autobiographical, but knowing that the author endured some of the same hardships as the protagonist in the book, made things really ring true. The author employed a device I've never seen used before that was really really effective. Showing how Kimberly misunderstand words by placing the misheard word in italics, which usually made the rest of the sentence incomprehensible, was a stunningly effective way of experiencing what it must be like to be attempting to assimilate into a culture where neither the customs nor the language are familiar.

I took special delight in the fact that, living in Brooklyn, I was able to visualize all the places and people she was describing. I loved that I felt such a visceral connection to Kimberly, to her overwhelmed mother, and even to the good-hearted rich girl who befriends Kimberly and ends up assisting her in her quest to assimilate into American culture.

The plight of children forced to take on adult roles too early -- at the expense of their own dreams and aspirations -- is one that anyone who works in an immigrant-rich area is familiar with. To read about a girl who escaped a life of drudgery, and went on to succeed spectacularly in life is to remember that sometimes children can surprise us with their resilience and their strength. And even though not every child born into poverty can escape, it's important to know of the ones who do to remind us that it is possible, even when it seems to be anything but. This is a feel-good book that will astonish you with its simple, powerful message that hard work and perseverance can beat some of the most horrendous odds -- when mingled with a little bit of luck, a lot of intelligence, and the occasional kindness of strangers.

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