75. Jennie Liu’s childhood reading in the USA, 1970s-80s

Jennie Liu’s book Girls on the Line was published earlier this month. With a target audience aged 14-18 years, it tackles some tough issues:

It is 2009 in the city of Gujiao, China: 16-year-old Luli and 17-year-old Yun, best friends, have aged out of their orphanage and are now enjoying the exhilarating independence of factory work. … Told in the first person from the two girls’ alternating points of view, readers will be drawn into their emotional lives through sharing both their quiet, day-to-day routines and the moments of high drama, all of which are direct results of policies that trapped ordinary citizens and forced them into making terrible decisions. (Kirkus Review)

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Girls on the Line, by Jennie Liu (21st Century, 2018) (Image source: Amazon)

We asked Jennie about her childhood reading, and are delighted she agreed to write for us.

Jennie writes: 

My parents immigrated to the U.S. when I was in the womb. During my upbringing, they were busy getting themselves established, and we five kids were kept pretty close to home with mostly only the yard, broadcast television, and books from the library with which to entertain ourselves.

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Jennie Liu, school photo, grade 1

As a very young child one book I vividly remember pulling off the shelf was The Five Chinese Bothers, an American retelling of a Chinese folktale, by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. I remember being excited to find a book with the word Chinese in the title. I enjoyed the strange story, but was bewildered and felt somewhat ill-at-ease about the yellow characters with long braided hair. I didn’t know anyone who looked like that! The book was first published in 1938 and is a classic in the States, but has also been controversial for racial stereotyping due to those illustrations.

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The Five Chinese Brothers, by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese (Image source: Amazon)

That was the only book I remember from early childhood with any speck of Chinese culture. Back then cultural diversity was not a concern. The books I read came from the library in a rural town in Florida near my parents’ workplace. The library was in a huge, creaky Victorian house. My siblings and I were allowed to go there on Saturdays and in the summer while my parents worked, and we would browse the young people’s section, which only had about five or six shelves in an otherwise vast empty room. The library was usually empty except for the two staff members who stayed in the office downstairs, and my siblings and I would camp out on the vinyl pillows for hours. I read whatever they had, mostly popular American authors like Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Lois Duncan, as well as whatever classics were required by the private school we attended.

Summer reading lists were issued from school, but the lists allowed for choices with an eye to developing an enjoyment for reading. In the ninth grade, Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, was one of suggested novels that I was able to find in the adult section of my musty library. The novel, also published in 1938, follows an insecure, young English woman who marries an older, wealthy estate owner and is thrust into his gentrified world.  She feels to be in the shadow of his beautiful, competent, deceased first wife until she learns a terrible secret which wakes her from her own illusions and compels her to essentially grow up.

Perhaps, since so much of teenage life in America is about trying to fit in, I felt a particular resonance with shy protagonist in Rebecca. The private school I attended had only about four non-white families in the entire school, and I felt my cultural difference distinctly. Like I said, cultural diversity and inclusion was not matter of importance back then, but thank goodness that has changed, especially in publishing and in schools (at least the public ones my children attend).  I am thrilled that my sons have a seeming endless supply of novels by and about people of so many different backgrounds who are facing all sorts of issues. It’s an exciting time to be a young reader.

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Exciting, indeed! On Jennie’s blog jennieliuwrites.com, she has a section titled “Amazing Time for Chinese Lit“, in which she lists the books she’s read, and the ones that on her To Read list. Thanks, Jennie!

 

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