Saturday, February 12, 2011

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

2010/293 pgs.
About the Book: Eleven-year-old Kimberly Chang and her mother are brought to America by Kimberly's Aunt Paula. The transition from Hong Kong to American life is a long and frustrating road. Kimberly picks up on English quickly and adapts to American life easier than her mother. She begins to excel in school and is soon awarded a scholarship to a private school.
Kimberly struggles with excelling in school but constantly being an outsider. She and her mother owe a debt to Aunt Paula for bringing them to America and they work in the skirt factory that Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob run and are barely able to make ends meet. They live in a terrible apartment with roaches and no heat. Kimberly tries to make a better life for herself and her mother by doing well in school. But her feelings for a fellow factory worker named Matt may threaten her future and Kimberly must decide what exactly her future holds.
Sarah Teenlibrarian Says: I don't read a lot of literary fiction, but I was interested in Girl in Translation because it was on the 2011 Alex Awards list. Although an adult title most of the book is spent with Kimberly during her teen years, and I think the coming of age story will hold a lot of teen appeal.
Kimberly is an engaging narrator and her struggles to adapt to life in America are heartbreaking. She's often an outsider and never quite fits in because of her clothes and race and her brain. But she doesn't take things laying down and she fights for herself in her new life which makes you want to cheer her on even more.
The author straddles Kimberly's dual identity skilfully and we see both sides of Kimberly-the shy smart girl at school who wants to rebel a bit and become more American and the girl at home who works in the factory, speaks Chinese, and struggles to hide her living conditions and work life. There is romance with Matt, but this is not a romance-while it's central to the plot, this is a very layered story and the focus is much more on Kimberly and her coming of age and success in school than anything else. The author does a great job of including Chinese sayings but explaining them so they weave into the story without feeling a bit jarring.
Overall the story is heartbreaking and bittersweet. I think this would make a great book club pick. I highly recommend it.
Audiobook note: Early on, as Kimberly is still learning English, the author uses misspellings to show Kimberly's misunderstandings of the language. It took me awhile to understand that since I listened to it on CD. But once I got the print copy it made more sense-the misspellings didn't come through on audio. Other than that, the book is beautiful on audio.

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