Shanghai Messenger

Each page in Shanghai Messenger (Lee & Low Books, 2005) has red Chinese screens framing poetry by Andrea Cheng and art by Ed Young. This beautiful picture book for children in the third to sixth grades tells the story of Chinese American Xiao Mei's first trip to China to visit her relatives.

I see my face
in the rice water,
two braids
hanging down,
fuzzy curls
all around,
half Chinese
half not.
In China
will people stare
at my eyes
with green flecks
like Dad's?
Will they ask
why didn't Grandmother
teach me Chinese?

Cheng's stirring free verse poems evoke Xiao Mei's fear about traveling to China all by herself, and her doubts from being surrounded by a language, people, and lifestyle that are strange to her. We also see Xiao Mei's love for her life in Shanghai really grow. When she returns to Ohio, Xiao Mei misses all of her relatives and longs for her family in America and her family in China to be together.

Young's spot illustrations in pastel, ink, dye, charcoal, and Conte crayon are impressionistic. They are sublime, effectively evoking all of Xiao Mei's conflicting feelings. How does he do that?

I believe that in Shanghai Messenger, Cheng and Young truly capture the beautiful yet complicated bond a young Asian American has with her Asian motherland.


It seems like the ease of travel and communication makes the world smaller, but what does that mean for the role of heritage? Thanks for this review! In my family, we're all adopted, so I have five Asian and Pacific Islander siblings. Referring to the interview below, I'm reminded that my two sisters who are part Filipino know very little about where they come from. It's good to hear your voice in the blogosphere.
Tarie said…
Hi, Kate! I cried while reading Shanghai Messenger. I am Filipino but I grew up in the US. I was around the main character's age when I moved from the US to the Philippines. Shanghai Messenger brought back so many memories, both painful and wonderful. I remember the culture shock and the confusion from straddling American culture and Filipino culture. But like Xiao Mei, I grew to love my motherland, mostly because of my family here. But also like Xiao Mei, I am torn. I still have family and friends in the US. My family in the US and my family here in the Philippines all wish we could be together. Shanghai Messenger captures this sort of experience!
susan said…
Ah, I picked this a month or so ago and haven't read it yet. ((hangs head in shame))Thanks for the review.
Tarie said…
Please let me know what you think of it, Susan!
The Book Chook said…
I love books that broaden kids' cultural horizons and encourage the growth of tolerance.
Tarie said…
Hi, Susan! You know what else I love about Shanghai Messenger? Xiao Mei isn't confused from being half Chinese, half American. She knows exactly who she is. Her only worry is how OTHER people might not understand.