Illustrated by Saara Kateriina Söderlund
For ages 9+
With more frequency our young children today are experiencing new pupils arriving into their schools from other countries whether they’re migrating for their parents work or fleeing a crisis in their homeland. Shirley Marr, author of the acclaimed A Glasshouse Full of Stars is back in middle grade with a new story about migration. Being a first generation Chinese-Australian, readers can feel reassured that the experiences felt by the characters are coming from a place of authenticity.
This story also provides a valuable insight for readers to understand the differences between Western and Eastern cultures, from the different foods, to festivals, inter-family relationships, attitudes to learning or material items.
About the book
The Guo family are a superstitious, traditional Chinese family who live in Singapore. Ba Ba (Dad) works incessantly and is a closed book to daughters Peijing (11) and Biju (5). Living in the same small apartment with them is Ma Ma (Mum) and Ah Ma (Granny). There’s no touching, hugging, there's silence at the dinner table and honour is of paramount importance. The children share a bedroom and inside a box they store their secret happy ‘Little World’ - animals and landscapes from their shared imagination that they have created themselves from paper; and from this they continue to create versions of stories based on Chinese myths that reflect their own lives as the story unfolds.
The story begins with the joyful Mid-Autumn Festival also known as the Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival. This is a traditional festival celebrated in Chinese culture and is on par with Chinese New Year in popularity. Held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar with a full moon at night, this corresponds to a date sometime in mid-September to early October in the Gregorian calendar. The Mid-Autumn Festival is based on the legend of Chang’e, the Moon goddess (of immortality) in Chinese mythology. There is great excitement in the kitchen about making the delicious mooncakes, Peijing can’t wait! Little does she know that her life is about to be turned upside down.
It is through Peijing’s experiences in this story that we follow her journey to start a new life in Australia with her family. Ba Ba takes a new architect job in Australia which affords them to be able to move to a house in the suburbs, a far cry from their former abode in Singapore. It takes the Peijing’s senses by surprise in the first few days after their arrival - the big blue sky, the cleaner air, green open spaces. Over the course of the book the reader finds out how the move to Australia changes each member of the family in their own way.
Ma Ma finds it incredibly hard. Her English is non-existent, unlike the girls who had learnt some at school already. At first she refuses to leave the house apart from walking to school and back for the school run (and to ‘feed’ her children their traditional Chinese lunches at school in the playground, much to Peijing’s embarrassment). She experiences racism and prejudice almost from day one, even when trying to buy the girls their school uniform. This is quite shocking. Gradually she realises that women have different expectations placed on them in Western culture. Women can have more equal opportunities to men than in the Eastern culture she has been used to. I find it really satisfying that Marr has subtly included Ma Ma’s own journey. She morphs from quite a cruel and cold mother into a more honest and caring mother by the end of the story. She's allowed to have her own identity outside the home.
Ah Ma is quite elderly, and uprooted from her life back home, she starts to become quite confused, and whereas in Chinese culture the family cares for the elders at home, the Guo family needs to make some tough decisions as to what is best for Ah Ma. This situation is such a source of anguish for Peijing. Ba Ba ends up having to take some time off from work and through some quite touching and funny moments goes from being a distant and hands off father to involved and invested. His use of spam and pasta as core ingredients for some new experimental ‘Western’ cooking is a great source amusement.
Peijing and Biju start their new primary school. Biju’s English is barely there and she really struggles at first, but being so young and with the emphasis on play and creativity she seems to adapt with support from her loving big sister. Peijing’s experience going into year 6, however, isn’t quite so peachy. She goes from having a core friendship group and being popular in Singapore to being an outcast. Peijing makes one friend in her class, Joanna. However, Joanna comes to school with broken shoes, bruises on her face and is so starved her bones stick out. They are two very different people, but both very lonely. Accepting each other as they are, they become soul mates, as close as sisters, and stick up for each other, and support each other to make the world a better place.
What I love, is that the family, much like the mooncake, realises that they are all people with their own hopes and dreams, but that together they are one, encasing their gorgeous glowing moon: Peijing, who cares and thinks so deeply about everyone and everything in the cosmos, especially her family. There are smiles, laughter, and by the end of the book Peijing is happy in her new life.
This is a very enjoyable read! Yes there are some hard truths about Joanna’s life and the racism towards Ma Ma, but there are also joyful and funny moments as Ba Ba gets to find out what it is to care for his family in more ways working at the office. I was relieved, like Peijing and Biju, that by the end of the story the chicken feature duster was out of action. Thanks to Peijing and Biju for the magic of their Little World. One day, I’m going to draw a little bee with a tiny black cat’s face… just to see if anyone notices.
Here’s some of Ah Ma’s wonderful wisdom:
“You cannot prevent the bird of sorrow flying over your head, but you can prevent it building a nest in your hair.”
“The world - your parents included - will always tell you to be the best version of yourself. I think that is wrong! What we all should be is our favourite versions of ourselves.”
“Pearls don’t lie on the shore. If you want one, you have to dive for it.”
About the creators
Shirley Marr (author)
Shirley Marr is a first-generation Chinese-Australian author living in sunny Perth. Shirley describes herself as having a Western mind and an Eastern heart and likes to write in the space in the middle where both collide, basing her stories on her own personal experiences of migration and growing up. Her debut novel was the critically acclaimed A Glasshouse of Stars.
Saara Kateriina Söderlund (illustrator)
A freelance illustrator and a friend of birds from Finland. Saara paints illustrations with gouache or digitally, sometimes mixing a little bit of both. Her illustrations are rich in detail and often focus on her love of nature and everyday themes.
Grab a copy
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Publication date: 5 January 2023
Also by Shirley Marr for ages 9+:
"Heart-twisting and hopeful, bursting with big feelings and gentle magic." Jessica Townsend, New York Times bestselling author of the Nevermoor series
"A rare and beautiful masterpiece; deeply heartfelt, dreamily magical, and glitteringly hopeful. I adored it!" Sophie Anderson, bestselling author of The House with Chicken Legs
*reviewed from proof via advance reading copy provided by the publisher
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