CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 14. . . . December 8, 2017
Written by Governor General’s Literary Award winning author Paul Yee, Shu Li and the Magic Pear Tree is the latest addition to Yee’s “Shu Li” series and features returning characters Shu Li and her two friends, Tamara and Diego from Guatemala. As with the previous books in his series, this story is set in Vancouver’s culturally and ethnically diverse Commercial Drive neighbourhood which has been a popular destination for immigrants from diverse backgrounds.
This book features a new character, Mrs. Rossi, a widow who lives in a large old house on Victoria Drive. As part of her summer volunteer work, Shu Li is assigned to visit Mrs. Rossi over the summer and read to her. During one of her visits, Shu Li brings her friend Tamara over, and Mrs. Rossi tells the two of them an intriguing story about a magic pear tree in her backyard that can make peoples’ wishes come true when the pears are eaten. When Shu Li expresses interest in getting a pear, Mrs. Rossi mentions that she can take as many as she likes.
Although the pear tree, itself, is not significant to the remainder of the story, it serves as an interesting element as Shu Li’s pears are connected with the plot twists that occur. Indeed, it appears that the pears contribute to favourable outcomes when the children consume them. While it is inconclusive whether these pears are magical, they do show how folklore can have a powerful effect on how one perceives the world. Perhaps, the children’s faith in the effects of the pears exemplifies, for readers, the importance of maintaining a positive mindset and sense of belief that things will work out for the better, regardless of the potential odds against them. As a result, the pears could be regarded as a catalyst for the children’s self belief that they can make a difference. In other words, the book provides an inspiring example of how children can make a difference in their own communities by exemplifying how neighbourhood activism can help to raise public awareness about community, social, and other issues as well as how children can be involved. For example, the primary thread of this story’s plot is the threat of closure that the school faces, with secondary plot elements revolving around Mrs. Rossi and Tamara. When the community decides to hold a parade to help keep the school open, both children and adults become involved.
However, one difference is that this book does not focus as much on the development of the children’s relationships nor on the issues of prejudice and intercultural relations, in contrast to the previous books in this series. Instead, Yee focuses on the characters’ personal problems and daily interactions, so the problems they face are external rather than interpersonal. For example, Tamara is afraid that she will have to move away due to rising rental costs, but this situation is resolved when her family decides to move in with Mrs. Rossi. Similarly, the threat of school closure is something that arises from factors that are beyond the children’s control, but which they ultimately resolve successfully.
The ending is perhaps predictable, although it is not a flaw as books for this age group typically end on a positive note. However, what might be developed a bit more is the lead up to the ending and its aftermath. Some readers might find that the story’s ending comes a bit too suddenly and without adequate lead up because, right after the students reveal their petition of more than 3000 signatures, the story ends in the next scene with an announcement that the school will not close after all.
This book is illustrated by Shaoli Wang, who has collaborated with Paul Yee in his previous books, Shu-Li and Tamara, Shu Li and Diego, and Bamboo. Readers will recognize her artistic style and be familiar with the same style of black and white illustrations. Some of Wang’s illustrations highlight key moments in the plot or depict the current activity that is occurring in the scene, such as when Shu Li goes to the library to find a book for Mrs. Rossi or when Shu Li and her friends use Mrs. Rossi’s treehouse to discuss their group project. In another instance, Wang provides readers with a point of view shot, from Shu Li’s perspective, when Mrs. Rossi shows Shu Li the attractive view of Vancouver downtown from her house’s porch.
Some illustrations heighten the emotional impact of a specific scene or draw attention to the emotions expressed by the children. For example, when Shu Li’s teacher Ms. Abdul tells the whole class that their classmate Shona is moving away, Wang’s illustration depicts the teacher and some students who are feeling sad, but it also includes a close up of Shu Li’s sad face. As a result, this encourages readers to empathize with what is happening as well as with the characters. Similarly, when the students decide to attend a school board meeting and join a parade to express their support for keeping the school open, Wang’s full page illustration enhances this scene’s impact. Her illustration depicts a crowd of students, some of whom are wearing clothes from their cultural traditions or waving signs to support their school. This is followed by a subsequent illustration that shows four kids holding a cardboard model of an indigenous canoe and a news network that is videotaping the entire proceedings.
Overall, Shu Li and the Magic Pear Tree is a worthy addition to Paul Yee’s “Shu Li” series as it broadens the narrative universe established in his previous two books by building upon other aspects of the characters’ community. Besides its inclusion of indigenous culture and Western folklore, the book also refers to the impact of municipal politics upon children’s lives, as seen by the threat of school closure.
This book would be appropriate for young readers from about grades two to four and would complement the other two in this series. Teachers can use Shu Li and the Magic Pear Tree to stimulate discussion about what it means to live in a community and what leads its residents to identify with it. For example, teachers could ask students what they like about their respective neighbourhoods and what qualities make it comfortable and feel like home for them. Since the book is not too long, it could also be read aloud to students in segments and finished easily within a few sittings.
In addition, the book further exemplifies the positive nature of cross cultural relationships and shows how everyone can mutually benefit from each other’s unique cultures and perspectives. More importantly, such relationships are normalized and represented in this book as the norm rather than as the exception. For example, the sharing of cultures and harbouring of mutual respect and understanding is portrayed in a positive manner, such as when Shu Li brings a mooncake to school to share with everyone. Similarly, Yee depicts teachers from different cultural backgrounds, but this is not something that is highlighted or emphasized within the story, itself. The illustrations contribute to this positive representation by showing culturally diverse characters socializing and working together.
Readers can visit Paul Yee’s official website at http://www.paulyee.ca/ to obtain more information about him and his other works. Teachers will find the “Resources” section on Yee’s website to be particularly useful as it provides downloadable guides with suggested approaches for teaching Yee’s books in the classroom. For example, the guides include major ideas or themes from the books, questions to prompt discussion and check students’ understanding of what they have read, as well as suggested activities to deepen the students’ engagement with the stories.
Huai Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.