Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review: The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng (2012)

Anna is in fourth grade, and lately, it seems like her only friends are Ray, the school crossing guard, and people she meets inside of books. She and her old best friend, Laura, are drifting apart, and though Camille, a girl in Anna’s Chinese class, seems really nice, Anna’s fear of new people keeps her at a distance. Over time, though, Anna starts to realize that life can’t be lived between the pages of even the very best book, and she begins to work on getting her nose out of the fictional world so she can make friends in the real one.

Though the writing is quite good, by far, what made me fall in love with The Year of the Book were Abigail Halpin’s illustrations. From the moment I laid eyes on the cover in the library, I was drawn to the many book covers which adorn the tree on the front of the book. I am amazed at how Halpin was able to create these teeny tiny reproductions of well-known covers that, even shrunk, are instantly recognizable. Before I even started reading, I enjoyed playing “Name that Children’s Book” and trying to see how many I had read.

Luckily, the story lives up to the promises of its cover. Anna reads lots of books, and I can think of several big readers right off the top of my head who would love her for that reason alone, regardless of her otherwise passive personality. I love the way author Andrea Cheng portrays the strained friendship between Anna and Laura. So many books simplify the shifts that happen in friendships as girls age, by absenting one friend or the other from the situation altogether. As I recall from my own experience, fourth grade was a pivotal year in which a girl who was my best friend one day could be my worst enemy the next. Cheng really understands that dynamic and all the emotions of hope, confusion, and disappointment it can create. I appreciated the push and pull in the girls’ friendship and Anna’s upset feelings over not knowing where she stands.

Cheng also does a nice job of balancing the theme of racial identity with everything else going on in the story. Anna’s Chinese heritage is important to her, but this is a book about Anna as a whole character, not just Anna as a Chinese-American character. As it should be. I want to see lots more books that understand that idea and treat characters as people, not issues!

The Year of the Book is a quiet story about a quiet girl, which means it might not appeal to readers who gravitate toward lots of adventure and excitement. Plenty of kids, though - bookworms especially - will be thankful for the friendship of a character like Anna who understands just what a fourth grade girl deals with on a daily basis.

Andrea Cheng has many other books. Read about them here. Abigail Halpin is also the illustrator for the adorable Cupcake Diaries, and she did the covers for Penny Dreadful and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything as well. Next to Julia Denos, she might just be my favorite chapter book illustrator! I can’t wait to see more from both Halpin and Cheng.

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