When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles. (Publisher's comments from Powell's Books)
As part of 2010 EW Summer Challenge I wanted to read several books that were considered adult reads, but because of the protagonist’s age could also be considered crossover YA books. Jean Kwok debut novel Girl in Translation beautifully fits into this category.
Although fiction, Girl in Translation reads like a memoir. Kimberly’s voice drew me into her story from the moment I read the prologue. Her descriptions of the events of her everyday existence made it impossible for me to put the book down, or not become emotionally entangled in the story. I became enchanted by Kimberly’s devotion to her mother and the strength it took for her to live in an apartment where mice and rats ran over her as she slept, cockroaches roamed the floors and walls, and the only heat came from a gas stove. I was furious at Kimberly’s aunt, who because she could, forced her mother and Kim to live a sub-human existence doing piece work in a sweatshop. Most of all I rooted for Kimberly as she struggled to overcome the disadvantage she had in school because of her limited understanding of the English language, and celebrated when Kimberly’s hard work helped her receive a full scholarship to a prestigious private school.
The reason I think this is an excellent YA crossover book is because it follows Kimberly throughout her high school years and authentically portrays how difficult life is for immigrant students. Kimberly’s mother does not speak English and many of the cultural aspects so foreign to American teens prevent Kim from having a normal adolescence. She cannot bring friends home, because of the way they live, she cannot date or hang out with friends because she must work everyday after school to eek out a less than living wage, and she has to study harder and longer in order to keep up her grades. Throughout the story, Kimberly never feels sorry for herself. Instead, the adversity she faces only makes her persevere more. Kimberly is a wonderful character and her story is so compelling, young adults who read it cannot help but come away with a greater understanding of how fortunate they are. I know I will certainly be more aware of the English Language Learners at my school because of this book.
Another aspect of this beautiful novel that will appeal to young adults is the romance that develops between Kimberly and Matt, a boy she meets working at the factory. Like Kim, Matt helps his mother at the factory so that they can earn more money. Their friendship develops over time and eventually turns into love. However, unlike Kimberly, Matt does not see education as his way out of the sweatshops. Instead, he works several jobs in lieu of going to school, and while I loved Matt’s character, I also feared that Kimberly’s attraction to him would sabotage her future.
While Girl in Translation is not a fast-pace story, Kwok’s simple but elegant prose is so impressive that I read the book in one siting. The ending, although not a total surprise, was extremely satisfying. The strong themes of love, sacrifice, and perseverance in the face of adversity are seamlessly woven into the novel. This is a story that will stay with me for a long time, and I for one am anxious to read more from this talented new writer.