Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: CHINESE MENU by Grace Lin
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Sabrina Ponce:
I said it once as a library student and I will say it again as a librarian: I would read anything by Grace Lin. With CHINESE MENU, Lin offers us a delectable feast of the history and folklore behind Chinese foods. The book is arranged like a menu with entries grouped into tea, appetizers, soup, sides, main dishes, and desserts. Readers can choose to only read the stories behind foods they may know like kung pao chicken, dumplings, and noodles, or they can read the book in its entirety and learn where dishes like Dragon and Phoenix and Crossing the Bridge Noodle Soup get their names. Having read the book in its entirety, I strongly encourage readers to do the same!
Grace Lin’s illustrations are a hallmark of her books in that they invite readers to visualize her settings. Therein lies the strength of CHINESE MENU. Readers are presented with a lesson in Chinese history in the same breath that they enjoy an illustrated story about a nine-tailed dog and learn the significance of the way certain names are spelled, as exemplified by the story about rice (125). By presenting an informative text in such a visual, piecemeal, and fun way, Grace Lin invites us not only to share in her personal experiences with these foods, but also to learn about their wider significance in the world today. As Lin writes in the story behind Dragon and Phoenix:
“…Chinese cuisine has a long history of fanciful names… because in the Chinese tradition, eating and dining were not simply something to fill one’s belly, but almost a ritualistic experience to savor and remember”pg. 219
While the stories themselves are fun – a moment of silence to honor the bravery of the fried shrimp who fought for Green Dragon – they also present themes common in Chinese folklore and connect these themes, foods, and stories bit by bit to a history of China’s people. Lin invites readers to learn why staples like tea and rice are so important in Chinese cuisine and challenges readers to broaden their perception of Chinese food, as when she explains that the earliest Chinese restaurants established in the United States actually only served food from one area of China that was roughly the size of Boston (153). Thus, while Lin entertains young readers with stories about dragons, foolish emperors, wise advisers, and other characters, she also encourages them to expand what they already know about Chinese history and culture.
There is no doubt that Grace Lin created a masterful work with CHINESE MENU. But whether its concept, text, and style make it worthy of the Newbery is up to our readers to decide.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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