soup of the day: the great wall of lucy wu by wendy wan-long shang!

"When we sat down to dinner, even I had to admit that Yi Po’s dumplings were something special. Better than the dumplings Mom bought at the store, better than the ones at Panda Café. There were lots of different flavors in the filling — a little ginger, a little garlic, some sesame oil — and they all stood out and blended together in turns. Every bite left me wanting more." ~ Wendy Wan-Long Shang, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu



Dribble, dribble, pass, shoot . . . SCORE!!

*the crowd roars and chants*

"Wen-dy, Wen-dy, Wen-dy, Wen-dy!"

It’s our very first Soup of the Day celebration this year, and we can’t stop cheering for Virginia author Wendy Wan-Long Shang! Her debut middle grade novel, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011) has officially hit the streets!! 

      

You know how excited I get about first books. Well, my normal level of enthusiasm is ramped up to the nines for this tender, funny, poignant and indescribably delicious story. Love love love it! *smacks lips*

Eleven-year-old Lucy Wu is looking forward to having a perfect year: she and her fellow six graders will rule the school, she’s going to try out for captain of the basketball team, and her "Miss Perfect" sister Regina is going off to college, so she’ll have their room all to herself. Lucy can’t wait to start decorating! But her all great plans begin to crumble when she learns her long-lost great-aunt Yi Po will be visiting from Shanghai and staying in her room — not for a week or two, but for several months!

Besides having to endure this unwelcome roommate (a noisy early riser who listens to crackly Chinese radio and smells of Vicks VapoRub), Lucy is being forced to attend Chinese School (goodbye, basketball practice), her much anticipated birthday plans are in the lurch, and she’s being bullied by the haughty Sloane Connors. Is it possible, like the ancient Chinese story said, for seemingly bad events to turn out good after all? 

      
          Bo Jangles insists on dunking the ball.

I was immediately taken with Lucy, a "short Chinese girl" obsessed with basketball, who’d rather eat pizza and pasta than a slew of fancy dishes in a famous Chinese restaurant. Her voice is engaging and distinctive, and her typical tween concerns, thought processes, and emotional reactions are convincingly portrayed. Young readers will easily identify with the frustration of having familial expectations and obligations clash with personal priorities, and they’ll enthusiastically root for Lucy, who is by turns self-centered, self-conscious, earnest, fearful, sarcastic and unfailingly hilarious. Coming into your own while wrestling with a dual identity has never been so challenging or enlightening.

     
       Lucy and her best friend Madison dream of playing with the Tennessee Vols under
       Coach Pat Summitt (photo source).

I love the effortless interweaving of story threads in this multi-layered novel, the historical facts and cultural references that inform but never hinder the plot, and of course, I love the food — a character in its own right which plays a crucial role figuratively and thematically.

When we first meet Lucy, she’s attending a birthday banquet at the widely praised Golden Lotus restaurant. While Regina, who practically majored in "Being Chinese," is ecstatic about the masterfully prepared jellyfish, pig’s ears, baby octopus, and frog, it’s all Lucy can do to keep from gagging. Thus the sisters are partially defined and contrasted by their food preferences, and from then on, food often appears to smooth the way or advance the plot with a distinctive ethnic flavor.

It was because of a perfect bowl of Chinese noodles that Mr. Wu found Yi Po in the first place. Because of Yi Po’s inimitable homemade dumplings, language barriers disappear, friendships are forged, and the birthday party is a big success. When Lucy finally tastes Yi Po’s special beef noodle soup, parts of her that were at odds finally coalesce and deeper feelings emerge: "the person who made them loved me, and maybe, just maybe, I loved her back." Food, the great equalizer, crossing all borders and boundaries with its universal resonance.

      
          Lucy learns about the horrors Yi Po endured during the Cultural Revolution.
         

Finally, I love how the novel is populated with secondary characters so well-rounded and believable, I’m sure I’ve met them before in real life: best friend Madison (fellow basketball enthusiast), math whiz brother Kenny (source of Chinese history), Lucy’s secret crush Harrison Miller (Mr. California Cool), annoying brainiac Talent Chang ("Chinese School is more important than basketball"), and Mr. Wu (you gotta love a man searching for the world’s most perfect bowl of noodles). Lucy’s interactions with each of them affects how she ultimately defines herself, as some of her innate prejudices gradually disappear and she connects to her Chinese heritage.

The Secret Wall of Lucy Wu has already received glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, which praised Shang’s "linguistic playfulness," citing that Lucy Wu "has a delightfully pessimistic tone that leavens dread with humor." This impressively strong debut, which contains all the best ingredients for a satisfying middle grade novel, will appeal to both boys and girls. I am pleased to give it my highest five spoon rating!

Surely all this talk about food has made you hungry. Not to worry, the alphabet soup kitchen helpers have prepared an especially delicious celebration soup. Dip your spoons deeply and slurp loudly in English, Chinese, or both. To Wendy, we say, "Xie xie," for writing this wonderful book!


Today’s Special: Gummi Bear Gumbo (a savory, somewhat chewy broth guaranteed to make you run faster, jump higher, and make more free throws).

Of course we must also have some dumplings:

bluefrogj/flickr

Flown in especially for today from the Golden Lotus, Pig’s Ears:

cyanocorax/flickr

For dessert, another of Wendy’s favorites, warm chocolate chip cookies:

Just the Bakery/flickr

and because Wendy’s a self-proclaimed Professional Gummi Bear Eater (or at least one in training), these special cupcakes:

katiskupcakes/flickr

In honor of Lucy and Madison, basketball hoop cookies:

whimsicalwhisk/flickr

and for Harrison, a lemon cupcake.

the_red_deer/flickr

Now that you’re all sugared up, dribble your way down to your local indie or click through to your fave online bookseller to score your very own copy of Lucy Wu. If you go to a bricks and mortar store, be sure to wear high tops and baggy shorts. Chat amiably with the cashier, using words like, "dribble," "dumplings," and "noodles." Then raise a big cheer for Wendy Shang! Hip Hip Hooray!

THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU
by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, January 2011
Fiction for ages 9-14, 320 pp.
Cool themes: Families, friendship, school, bullies, basketball, Chinese Americans, Chinese history, Chinese language, humor, intergenerational dynamics, multiculturalism, ethnic cuisine.

SECOND HELPINGS

♥ Visit Wendy Shang’s official website for more info about Lucy Wu, the scoop on school visits and gummi bears.

♥ You can also find Wendy at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. They are featuring an interview and ARC giveaway today!

♥ Blog reviews: Laura Simeon (OWS and Vista Academy Library), TheHappyNappyBookseller, Abby the Librarian, A Patchwork of Books, Edge Book Reviews.

♥ More interviews: I Am a Reader, Not a Writer (includes giveaway running through January 27), Kathy Erskine, Part One & Part TwoMadelyn Rosenberg

♥ Wendy will be signing The Great Wall of Lucy Wu at Hooray for Books, Alexandria, VA, on February 5th.

♥ More Soup of the Day posts here.


The right beef noodle soup, so good it might make you weep, could change your life forever. Thanks, Yi Po! (photo by mgtelu/flickr)

"But I love basketball. The day I got the hang of dribbling the ball through my legs counts as one of the best days of my life, and that feeling I get when I know the ball’s going in because everything has lined up perfectly is the greatest rush." ~ Lucy Wu

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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