CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 8 . . . . December 7, 2007
The topic of friendship has historically been a popular topic in children’s literature because of its appeal to children and its pertinence to their daily lives. In the process of growing up, children interact with people from a variety of backgrounds. Books that focus on friendship can be potentially didactic, particularly when a positive “message” about friendship is conveyed at the expense of creating an engaging story for readers. However, stories written effectively about this topic can encourage a particular vision of how people can live and relate positively with others who come from different backgrounds. Children’s books that deal with cross-cultural friendships are increasingly relevant today because of Canada’s growing ethnic and cultural diversity.
Paul Yee’s latest work, Shu-Li and Tamara, provides such an approach to friendship by portraying one between two girls—Shu-Li and Tamara—that crosses ethnic and class boundaries as well as the prejudices that they encounter because of their backgrounds. The story exemplifies a friendship based on trust and openness as well as the benefits of such a friendship whereby increased cross-cultural understanding and appreciation can occur. Although the story, itself, culminates with the school fair, it has an episodic plot structure that focuses on Shu-Li’s experiences at school, home, and work, within which her friendship with Tamara develops. With this narrative approach, Yee also gives readers a good sense of his story’s secondary characters, which include Shu-Li’s and Tamara’s parents, classmates, and teachers. Readers will come away from this book with not only a strong impression of Shu-Li and Tamara’s friendship, but also a good sense of the multicultural neighbourhood in which these two girls live.
Both Shu-Li and Tamara’s families are relatively new residents to Vancouver. Shu-Li and her family had moved to Canada from China two years ago and are not overly rich, but they appear to be middle-class. In contrast, Tamara’s family has arrived in Vancouver recently, and they are from a working class background. Yee’s story sends a positive message about friendship that will encourage young readers to avoid judging people based on their appearances or initial impressions of them. At the same time, Yee does not neatly resolve the issues that Shu-Li encounters because of her friendship with Tamara. Instead, he strives for a realistic portrayal of their friendship because he avoids a simplistic resolution to the prejudice that Shu-Li and Tamara experience because of their family backgrounds.
For example, Shu-Li encounters prejudice from three unpleasant girls in their grade four class who laugh at Shu-Li’s mother because of her broken English and, later, they comment negatively about the food that she and Tamara are serving at the school fair. Tamara is also the subject of nasty rumours in the community because her family is poor. Despite concerns about Tamara’s behaviour, Shu-Li remains unwavering in her support for her. Shu-Li’s classmates, and even her father, are suspicious about the source of Tamara’s pocket money and warn Shu-Li that Tamara might be a thief. These rumours culminate with an incident at the school fair wherein Tamara is accused of stealing money from the school fair’s bake sale. Yee’s story suggests that such prejudices can be held by a variety of people and that, therefore, there is no simple solution to eradicate these prejudices.
The story’s short chapters and language difficulty will make it appropriate for children aged seven to nine, or those who are starting to read chapter books. Since the story has a significant amount of dialogue, this chapter book could work well as a read-aloud. The book includes illustrations by Shaoli Wang, who also illustrated Paul Yee’s picture book Bamboo. His black and white pencil illustrations complement the story by highlighting key points of action and conflict as well as significant settings and objects, such as the park that Tamara and Shu-Li visit, the multicultural foods for sale at the school fair, and the foods served at Shu-Li’s parents’ deli. However, one minor drawback is that the illustrations are in shades of gray rather than in colour, and so the book’s visual impact is less vivid than Yee’s Bamboo and other picture books that address Chinese Canadian themes.
Overall, young readers will enjoy this easy-to-read story which will be a good addition for school or public library collections that wish to include more literature that deals with “unconventional” or intercultural friendships. Elementary school teachers may also use this book as a teaching tool for discussing the problems that can arise among friends, particularly when they come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, as well as the rewards of such friendships. In addition, teachers can use the book to encourage discussion about the problems that immigrants can face after moving to another country, problems such as prejudice, feelings of isolation, cultural and class differences and tensions, and language barriers. The book’s last few pages are supplemented by recipes for almond cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and carrot halwa, which could be incorporated readily into a short classroom activity or study unit that deals with multicultural cuisine or cultural traditions.
Huai-Yang Lim has recently completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB.
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