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Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung is a younger character and the book reads as if primarily intended for pre-teen readers. As the story begins, we learn that Danny loves art. He loves drawing and creating comics and it is these drawings that illustrate the book throughout. Early in the narrative Danny’s father delivers one of his ‘Chinese Way’ lectures, ‘The Chinese Way is hard work. It is about listening and respecting our elders. It is about family and helping each other gain success. We have to work doubly hard in this country.’ Shortly after Danny learns that he must share his bedroom with his newly arrived grandmother. His relationship with his Nai Nai forms a core part of story and his perspective shifts; she begins as a ‘little old lady from China who looked like my dad’. As Danny becomes more frustrated and embarrassed by her behaviour and the expectation that he helps her to settle in, she becomes ‘Ant Gran, Supervillain’ in his comic book work.


extended British Chinese families who run Chinese takeaways in the Midlands. Both are illustrated – Cheung’s by herself, Chan’s by Anh Cao – and about characters who themselves have artistic ambitions. Both feature South Asian best friends. Both are first person narratives, where the narrator struggles with not having a common language to speak with some family members, and where resulting questions of identity are explored through the narrative.


But the books are also very different. Chinglish is written as the diary of Jo Kwan, beginning in 1984 when Jo is 13 years old and ending in 1987. Kwan’s tone is often sardonic – on discovering the name of their new take-away ‘Happy Gathering’, she writes, ‘I will look up the Trade Descriptions Act. I think we may be breaching it’ (p16). Kwan’s attitude to her parents is in contrast with common Chinese ideas of showing respect to one’s elders. But this is contextualized in the story; it emerges that she and her old brother have both been subjected to violence at the hands of their father. Cheung offers a raw, honest account of domestic violence and whilst a number of relevant charities are listed at the end of the book, it may surprise some readers that a content warning is not offered at the start of the book, particularly as the illustrative style is one that we might associate with more light-hearted material. It is important to add that it is stated that Chinglish is based on Cheung’s life material. It is a story she has every right to tell, and one that might, as she hopes, help other young people living through similar ordeals. Chinglish does not conform to model minority myths of British Chinese people. Equally, it is not the positive portrayal of British Chinese family life that is so needed in Britain. However, this is an issue for British children’s publishing. Neither Cheung nor any individual writer should have to shoulder the burden of representation of a whole community.


The depictions of racism in the 1980s feel accurate. Currently, interesting questions are being asked amongst YA readers and scholars about how to depict racism without reinforcing it. Does the use of racial slurs in a narrative have a negative impact on readers, irrespective of who is expressing them and how they are responded to? Certainly, it is becoming less common to see racist language used in books where the author takes an antiracist perspective.


At times Jo Kwan appears supremely confident, such as when she writes a letter to the BBC complaining that they have rejected all of her submissions for the Take Hart gallery. At other moments she expresses anxieties about friendships, her future and her appearance. It is the last of these that will likely cause the most concern for some readers. Whilst worries about how one looks are common teenage experience, they can take on an extra dimension for racially minoritised people in racist societies if their features are perceived to be connected to their ancestry. Towards the end of the story, Kwan notes that her eyes ‘look pretty too these days’(p341). Two pages later, she expresses concerns that ‘Nobody gets me, cos nobody is like me’ (p343) but the story ends with her fulfilling her dream by leaving home for fashion college in London. We have a sense that things will work out for Jo Kwan and that her resilience to brutality inside and outside the home has helped her through a tough period in her life.


This eventually changes when Maths becomes their common language. Danny’s entry into the school maths competition involves the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio, combining maths, art, and nature in the form of the Romanesco cauliflowers his grandmother buys at the local grocer. This resolution offers a way of integrating Danny’s own desires with external expectations. Chan is clearly interested in the stereotype of Chinese students concerning maths. A class-mate tells Danny ‘My mum said all Chinese people are good at maths’. But such stereotypes, can also be internalized; his father also informs him that ‘Maths is in our blood remember’. At the close of the book we learn that this is not the whole story; Danny’s grandfather had been an artist but had not made enough money from it to send his son to university. Significantly, it is Nai Nai, who supports Danny’s artistic ambitions.


As in Chinglish, there are references to racism in the book, but they are more subtle; ‘Typical foreigners, coming here taking our bingo seats’ says one person when Danny takes Nai Nai to bingo. What are readers to make of these differences in approach? They may be explained by the near forty-year gap in when these two stories take place. Or in the age of the target audience. Or possibly Chan is reluctant to repeat racial slurs used against Chinese people in her story out of concern for the impact on readers. It is our hope that readers encounter both these books at an appropriate age, along with a far broader range of books focusing on British East Asian characters than is currently available.


Books mentioned Chinglish, Sue Cheung, Andersen Press, 978-1783448395, £7.99 pbk Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, Maisie Chan, Piccadilly Press, 978-1800780019, £6.99 pbk


K is for Korea, Hyechong Chung, illus Prodeepta Das, Frances Lincoln Books, 978-1847801333, £6.99 pbk


Starbird, Sharon King-Chai, Two Hoots, 978-1509899562, £12.99 hbk A Hat for Mr Mountain, Soojin Kwak, Two Hoots, 978-1529012873, £6.99 pbk What I Like Most, Mary Murphy, illus Zhu Cheng-Liang, Walker Books, 978- 1406369045, £12.99 hbk


Dandelion’s Dream, Yoko Tanaka, Walker Books, 978-1406388770, £12.99 hbk My Friend Amy, Anna McQuinn, Alanna Books, 978-0955199837, £11.99 hbk


Karen Sands-O’Connor is the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. Her books include Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).


Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and the author, with Jeffrey Boakye, of What Is Masculinity? Why Does It Matter? And Other Big Questions. He tweets at @rapclassroom.


Books for Keeps No.247 March 2021 11


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