Chook Chook Little and Lo in the City is author Wai Chim’s follow up to Chook Chook: Mei’s Secret Pets. It’s a nice little story exploring the perennial themes of family and identity as Mei has to learn to adjust to a new man in her family when her mother marries again. I wanted to take a look at it because it’s the first children’s chapter book that I’ve come across, that’s set in contemporary rural China.
When I was a child, I devoured a whole series of ‘twins’ books. I can’t remember the name of the series now, but these twins travelled the world – and I gained a glimpse of lifestyles in other countries. This kind of reading is great for children because while it transports them to another world, it shows them that people are basically the same all over the world. Children are less likely to grow up as adults insular and hostile to the Other if they have ‘met’ the Other in their reading. For me, the test for books to meet this goal lies in the balance between depicting the ‘exotic’ culture and the familiarity of everyday life.
Chook Chook, Little and Lo in the City passes this test. It’s the simple story of Mei, who keeps two chickens (Little and Lo) as pets. She lives in a village with her widowed mother and her older brother Guo, and everything is fine until Mum marries the one-eyed butcher, bringing his son Bao along as a younger brother for Mei. The cellar built as a shelter in case there is a typhoon is suddenly filled with smoked pigs, and Bao – who shares a room with Mei – snores, keeping her awake at night. There is more unwelcome change when Guo leaves for the city of Guangzhou.
You can see even from this short summation that there are aspects of Mei’s life that are different to the life of an Australian child. Very few Australian children live in villages; ours is a nation that lives clustered on the eastern seaboard in massive cities, and with the exception of hobby farms, farms here are massive concerns not small holdings. With Medicare a long-established health insurance system in our country, it would be rare indeed to meet someone with only one eye. When Jin finally acquires a prosthetic eye in preparation for the wedding it is noticeably ill-fitting, whereas here in Australia such a disability would be almost impossible to detect. Houses here don’t usually have cellars – and if they do, the cellar is for wine, not for smoked pigs!
But the difference that most children will notice is that Mei shares a bedroom, with her new brother Bao, and Guo has to sleep in the living room.
Not long after the wedding, Jin and Bao moved into the farmhouse. Bao and I shared the room that Mum and I used to sleep in, while Ma and Jin took the only other bedroom. Guo sectioned off part of the living room for his bed.
The house felt very, very small. (p. 13)
Most Australian children reading this must surely get a glimpse of how privileged they are by comparison, but it’s not heavy-handed.
Aussie kids will identify with Mei being an independent young girl who’s not afraid to set out for the city to find her brother, but the character of Cap is a different matter. He is an orphaned street kid, dirty, hungry and neglected. His father was in the military, but now that his parents are dead there seems to be no one to care for him. In this story he gets the opportunity to show how clever he is and is rescued, adopted into Mei’s family and sent to school, but sensitive young readers will wonder about how precarious life can be in countries without a ‘welfare safety net.’
None of this gentle depiction of a different kind of life would work for young readers, however, if the story were not engaging. Didactic books do not work for today’s kids. But Mei’s adventure in the city is hilarious, because she takes the chickens with her. They cause all kinds of scrapes including helping to foil a robbery and faking a TV appearance.
What pleased me, however, because I’m alert to stereotyping in children’s books, is that the book positions China in transition. The rural lifestyle is still simple, and by our standards, poor. But Guo’s decision to further his education is prompted by his (now dead) father’s awareness that things must change, and Guo needs to learn new ways of farming that are more competitive. Jin the butcher explains that everybody needs to be flexible and adaptable in the modern world:
‘I’m going to learn about farming. Your ma’s going to teach me, Guo’s going to teach me, you’re going to teach me.’
I couldn’t help snorting. ‘But you’re a butcher.’
‘So? I can learn.’ Jin had a dreamy look on his face. ‘I want to learn from your father too and not do just one thing. We can be a new type of family. We’re not farmers or butchers, but good businesspeople who do a lot of different things.’ (p. 138)
The computer on the university professor’s desk may be old, and nobody’s got a mobile phone to ring Ma to tell her that Mei is safe, but China isn’t standing still.
A word about the design: this book is for independent readers so there are no pictures apart from small drawings foreshadowing content at the beginning of each chapter, but the book-cover is a water-colour painting obviously created just for this book. It’s charming, and it’s relevant to the story – and it makes me wonder how it is that publishers can afford to do this for children’s books which sell for $12-$15 but get by with those awful stale stock images on book-covers for adult books which sell for twice the price.
I think that able readers will enjoy Chook Chook, Little and Lo in the City. Highly recommended.
Chook Chook – Little and Lo in the City