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Shanghai Messenger Paperback – August 11, 2005
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From School Library Journal
Grade 3-6–Eleven-year-old Xiao Mei is on her way to China to meet her extended family. She was initially reluctant to make the trip, wondering if she would be accepted because she is only half Chinese, but her grandmother, Nai Nai, tells stories of family members that pique her curiosity. Xiao Mei agrees to be Nai Nai's messenger, and to Look everything./Remember. Once in Shanghai, the girl is warmly welcomed, and begins to learn about and appreciate her heritage. She makes wontons with Auntie, visits gardens where her great-grandfather's words are carved in the archways, and participates in morning Tai Chi exercises. When Xiao Mei returns home to Ohio after a week, she takes gifts, including a fan painted by an uncle that brings a little bit of China to America. Cheng does an admirable job of capturing this experience from the perspective of a child, and each free-verse chapter is brief but satisfying. With the exception of one spread illustrating the Tai Chi exercises, Young's illustrations delicately intertwine with the text, gently supporting each vignette. This is a superb book, capturing both the excitement and adventure of Xiao Mei's trip, as well as her realization that family ties can bridge great distances.–Grace Oliff, Ann Blanche Smith School, Hillsdale, NJ
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Gr. 4-6. In many of today's immigration stories, the break with the Old Country is not as final as it used to be, and young people travel back and forth across borders and generations to visit extended family and explore their roots. In this picture book for older children, 11-year-old Xiao Mei, the child of an American father and a Chinese mother, is persuaded by Grandma Nai Nai in America to take up the invitation from Uncle Hai Tao to spend the summer in Shanghai. Cheng's free-verse story, illustrated with Young's small, expressive line-and-watercolor pictures, shows the child's initial doubts, the plane journey and the arrival, and the welcoming young cousins and adults. Whether she is making wontons, doing tai chi in the park, helping her cousin buy a computer, or singing the songs from The Lion King in English and Chinese, she discovers her connections with a rich, exciting world. A glossary and a pronunciation guide will help readers pronounce the Mandarin names and words. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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It's an unfortunate fact that, even today, life can be very difficult for children of mixed American families. Often times, these children feel as if they have enough of each culture so as not to fit in anywhere. In America,they are foreign; in their "other" country, they are American. I have seen it happen time and time again that children will reject their non-American half, turning away from it, wanting to have nothing to do with it.
It is for this very reason that the existence of stories like "Shanghai Messenger" is so important. As the reader reads the story of Xao Mei's voyage to China, seeing how she slowly integrates and learns to cherish her Chinese half, he will come to understand that it is possible to be two different things at once. Just as Xao Mei comes to terms with the fact that, while she is American, she is also Chinese, readers of mixed background will learn that it is okay, and even a positive thing, to embrace their other culture as Xao Mei does.
This book might just be a necessity for parents of mixed children to read with their children. It will also be great in classrooms with mixed children. I firmly believe that it will help teacher to show children not only how to accept themselves but also how to accept those that may be different from them.
"Shanghai Messenger" is told through a set of 30 prose poems, each a page or two long. The poems form a single, narrow column on each page, vertically bordered on both sides with airy orange lattices reminiscent of rice-paper screens, and set off by small ink, pastel and charcoal drawings by Ed Young, the 1990 Caldecott Award-winning artist, who himself grew up in Shanghai. With plenty of white space to balance the concise text and decorative borders, the pages feel clean and open, yet attractive. There is also one double-spread centerfold illustration, and the cover picture, which is not repeated inside the book. The poems serve as sequential "snapshots": those about Xiao Mei's experiences in Shanghai particularly resemble travel album photos, offering colorful images of her arrival, and of such everyday and "tourist" activities as making wontons, visiting public gardens with historical family significance, participating in the community Tai Chi morning exercise routine, visiting a school, and doing laundry as the Chinese do. Not all is without challenge. At one point, Xiao Mei gets ill, as travelers often do. She is troubled by the unfamiliar Chinese remedies offered, until she finds relief and comfort in eating rice porridge cooked just as Nai Nai would make it.
Several events lead Xiao Mei to reflect on and better understand her Chinese-American identity as Xiao Mei/May Johanson, "half Chinese/half not...half and half/everywhere/in the world." She learns, for example, that one aunt is commenting admiringly (not negatively as Xiao Mei assumes) on Xiao Mei's curly hair while braiding it. She experiences being stereotyped by her Auntie Ting, who wrongly assumes that Xiao Mei has visited New York and likes Jell-O. She can't fully bridge the gap between herself and a Chinese schoolgirl, yet takes pleasure in being unexpectedly accepted as "Big Sister" by a small boy who understands her halting Chinese. Back home again, it's clear from Xiao Mei's conversations with her family there that her perspective about their extended Chinese family has grown wider and more appreciative. Her mailed "thank you" to the Chinese relatives represents a sincere, freshly-significant connection.
Andrea Cheng subtly, but skillfully, reveals realistic information about present-day China. For example, Shanghai's population pressures are suggested through Xiao Mei visiting a cousin in a 21st floor apartment, encountering bamboo scaffolding and building cranes multiple times as she moves around, and wondering will happen to an old lady, child, and goldfish living in a traditional courtyard house about to be bulldozed. Differences between typical Chinese and American standards of living are suggested through seeing her aunt cook elaborate meals on a hot plate in a stairwell, and noting her cousins' thankfulness for access to a tiny clothes dryer in their apartment hallway (used to dry laundry carried through the rain on the back of a moped!) Xiao Mei experiences shopping in China (not in a mall!) for both a live duck, and for a computer for her cousin. She experiences greater reliance on shared transportation than would be typical in Ohio: besides her plane trip to and from Shanghai, she travels by crowded van, foot, moped, subway and bus in the context of routine activities with her relatives. There is even a glance back at history as a cousin briefly describes eight "wasted" years of "re-education" during the Communist era. All of these details suggest contrasts between China and the U.S. in a matter-of-fact, accepting way; there's a lot of information, sometimes perhaps too much to be meaningful to a young reader with little background knowledge, packed into 30 poems.
The plot of "Shanghai Messenger" is driven more by description than action, but, in a gentle, inviting way, this narrative-in-verse gives a glimpse of modern urban Chinese life through the eyes of a pre-teen accustomed to life in America. It also offers encouragement for those of bi- or multi-cultural identities to enrich their self-understanding by exploring and connecting with unfamiliar parts of their family background and culture. As a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages, I look forward to perhaps using this book with, or recommending it to, some of my English language learners.