After A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I turned to my attention to the book I paired with it, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation. Set roughly 100 years apart, these stories comprise an interesting conversation. Both have a strong female protagonist in Brooklyn. One an immigrant, one the daughter of immigrants. Both struggle with poverty and a precocious desire to learn and excel.
I first heard about Girl in Translation from a booktalk in our school library. As often happens, I also check out a book or two after the book talks. I immediately adored this book. The protagonist Kimberly is relatable, honest and moving, just like Francie. I also enjoyed how the author found a creative way to show us that Kimberly doesn’t always understand everything people say to her in English. Peppered into sentences are phonetic spellings of words that Kimberly doesn’t understand. It’s a brilliant way to put us in her shoes with teachers and classmates speaking quickly and not all of it landing.
I also love the emotional journey that we go on with Kimberly. We cheer for her, we cry for her, we chew our nails for her. And the flood of empathy that I feel is real. Her character serves as both a window and a mirror for me. First, this book give me a window into her Chinese culture and upbringing. But, like a mirror, this book allows me to see American culture through her eyes. We take so much of our own realities for granted that we forget all of our culture is a social construct.
I also feel very strongly that teachers need to read this book. There is so much that we can say or do that could hurt students without us realizing. Kimberly has a few terrible teachers and lots of amazing ones. It was a good reminder that I want to be on the right team. It also illuminated for me the privileges that teachers can take for granted–access to art supplies, NY Times subscriptions at home, a parent who can take time off work to come to school.
And I hope that my students also have a powerful experience with this novel. Kimberly attends a private school from 7th grade through graduation and there is so much that her peers don’t know about her, and my hope is that it will increase my own independent school students’ awareness of both their privilege and the diversity around them. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own existence (especially if you’re a teenager), but there is so much variation in our communities, and we need to be open and empathetic to the experiences of others. As Kimberly is struggling with a rat and roach infested apartment with no heat, her peers are complaining about curfews and the banality of suburban complacency.
There is also some interesting social justice commentary in this novel. And, honestly, legal justice! The book raises important questions about the ways in which immigrants in our country are treated. Kimberly must act as a grown up as soon as she sets foot in the country as a 6th grader. Her youth and also her lack of voice really cuts the reader deep. Her vulnerability and strength are both breath-taking, and this is an important window into the immigrant experience. And, of course, the fact that she and many other children are working in a sweatshop to survive made me so angry. It reminds me how far we’ve come from 1912, but also how many things have not changed.
As the book approaches the climax, every inch of ground that Kimberly has gained hangs in the balance. It’s the kind of book I start yelling at, pulling my knees close to my chest as I plunge into the next page. She’s come so far, I can’t handle the thought that she won’t make it.
I assigned Girl in Translation and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as summer reading for my honors 10th grade World Literature class. Before we dive into the rest of the world, let’s consider our relationship to the rest of the world. We are a part of the world and it’s good to discuss and question what that our relationship is.