Just like the last book I reviewed on here, Chinglish is a book I was lucky enough to win a copy of at YALC 2019. The Andersen Press stall were holding a competition to win a copy (ahead of its publication in September) and the entry requirements were simple – you get 30 seconds to draw a self-portrait on a little dry-erase board with the hashtag #ChinglishBook, and then you share it on Twitter and tag @AndersenPress. Art is not my strong suit, but I thought I might at least have some chance of being memorable to the judges by virtue of the silly hat I was wearing. And what do you know – it worked!
(It’s a witch hat. I am not an artist.)
I had hoped to get a review out before release day, but I am a very haphazard blogger and also my life has been Messy™ since the summer so I’m doing it now instead!
Trigger warning: It’s worth noting that this book contains scenes of racism, child abuse, and neglect, so please read with caution.
Chinglish is a fictionalised autobiography of growing up in the ’80s by Sue Cheung. The names are changed and some side characters are made up, but a lot of the events that take place in the book are memories from Cheung’s own childhood.
Our protagonist is Jo Kwan, and the story is told through her diary entries from 1984 to 1987. I often find that stories structured in this way can be quite tedious as they trudge through the MC’s day-to-day, but Cheung absolutely nails the pacing and maintains enough mystery to keep it fresh. There are several questions established early on, and we are kept guessing for a large portion of the book, such as: why did Jo’s brother go to live with their grandparents? Why do the Kwans keep having to move, and why is their new place so small? Will Jo ever make it as an artist?
Despite facing bullies at school and an unpredictable family life at home, Jo presents a hilarious and ambitious outlook on life. She finds the humour in the strangest of situations and never wavers from her goal of becoming a professional artist. She makes for a charming and inspiring narrator and you end up rooting for her even when she makes (very understandable, teenage) mistakes.
This book captures perfectly the feeling of being an outsider in secondary school – but ultimately shows us that being different is something to be celebrated, not something to be ashamed of. Jo’s journey to understanding this is a painful one, but it’s one that will resonate with a lot of readers.
I was incredibly impressed to find out that Cheung did all the illustrations (including the cover) herself. Chinglish showcases some of the brilliant talent that there is to be found in the UKYA scene, and I sincerely hope that Sue Cheung continues to write YA because she is absolutely fantastic at it!