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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #14 (April 4, 2006), page 16.
At home in a great big world
By Andrea Cheng
With drawings by Ed Young
Lee & Low Books, 2005
Hardcover, 38 pages, $17.95
By Josephine Bridges
Xiao Mei is rinsing rice when her Grandma Nai Nai announces that the 11-year-old girl has been invited to visit family in Shanghai. Itís Xiao Meiís decision, says Nai Nai, but itís not an easy one for the girl looking at her reflection in the rice water, wondering if people will stare at her eyes "with green flecks / like Dadís" or if no one will come to meet her plane. "What if I am all alone / in China?"
Itís Nai Naiís reminiscences about her brothers and sisters that make Xiao Meiís decision, but the girl is still concerned. What if she forgets which relative is which? "No matter," her grandmother reassures her, "they are all / Auntie and Uncle / to you."
Andrea Cheng doesnít skirt the difficulties of travel ó shots, jet lag, illness ó and she doesnít skimp on the strange joys either. Doing tai chi in a small park in the early morning, Xiao Mei smells "mist / and gasoline / and fish." A girl in an art class she visits tries to give her a picture she has drawn. "I cannot take / her beautiful bird. / She doesnít know me / at all." Cousin Jing describes re-education as the two watch shirts go around in the dryer that seems like a miracle in weather so wet that clothes wonít dry on the balcony: "We cannot study, / only work / in the fields. / Waste eight years, / not enough food, / yams every day, / and mud / on the floors." And the night before her return flight, Xiao Mei listens to farmers shouting outside her window and realizes, "Soon I wonít / hear them / anymore."
Shanghai Messenger is a gorgeous book in every way possible. Andrea Chengís narrative is spare and evocative and you want it never to be over. Shanghai native Ed Youngís masterful illustrations prod the imagination ever so gently. Even the font used for section titles and first letters is unforgettable with its extraordinary letter "A."
Sure, people stare at the "half Chinese / half not" girl on the streets of Shanghai just as they do in her hometown, but when Xiao Mei helps a little boy climb on a park bench "because in China itís okay / even if heís not your brother, / even if you never saw him before," the reader senses what a great big world it is and yet how at home in it this little girl can feel.