One of the lovely things about having daughters is that I get to share in their joyous fantasy world, where ballet tutus and glittery wings are forever fashionable and the prospect of being a princess when you grow up is a feasible career goal. Obviously my daughters are also growing up with a feminist mother who tries to balance the fairy fantasy with other potential role models – but those dang fairies and princesses continue to come out on top! The distinct lack of glitter was the first thing that tickled me about Wai Chim’s Chook Chook series. These books have a lot to offer young readers of either sex, but they provide a captivating character for young girls in the inquisitive, resilient Mei.
Sydney-based Wai Chim grew up in New York in a family who only spoke Chinese at home. She draws on her parents’ stories of life in the semi-rural parts of China and Hong Kong for her unique children’s books about young Mei and her pet chooks, Little and Lo. In the first book, Chook Chook: Mei’s Secret Pets we learn about the struggles of Mei’s family after the loss of her father to an unnamed illness. Her mother is loving, but hard working, practical and preoccupied, and Mei is a little at sea finding her feet within the changing family environment. Mei rescues two fluffy chickens from a snake in the garden and immediately appoints herself their carer and guardian.
Unfortunately, since her animal-loving father passed away, Mei’s mother has had a firm ‘no pets’ rule on the farm and Mei faces a heart-warming and humorous adventure to keep her pets safe from her mother and the gruesome One-Eyed Butcher! She is clever and creative with the methods she devises to keep the chickens from harm. As her story unfolds, we get a charming glimpse into rural Chinese life, including traditional foods, the hustle and bustle of the local markets, and the hardships of life on the land. At the same time, the basic themes around love, family, growing up, and making sense of the adult world are universal. The chickens are used symbolically to represent Mei’s insecurities and her longing to maintain a connection with her father. I was genuinely moved by the last page where one of Little’s eggs pops open with a ‘peep’ and we know there is hope for a brighter future for Mei and her family.
Book 2, Chook Chook: Little and Lo in the City takes place one year later, when Mei’s world is again changed by her beloved big brother Guo heading off to university and her mother remarrying. When her home is invaded by a new little step brother, she decides there’s no longer any room for her. She takes Little and Lo and heads off to the big city to seek comfort with Guo. The book gently hints at the dangers involved in a young girl travelling alone in China (or anywhere) when Mei meets tricksy young orphan, Cap, who introduces her to life as a runaway. Once again, this story is distinctly Chinese whilst being quite relatable to any child who is experiencing a broken family, grief or loss, or who simply longs for adventure. Once again, Mei shows great courage, intelligence and loyalty as she overcomes the obstacles of this new journey. Naturally it resolves happily, but it also leaves the door open for future adventures – and I can’t wait to read them.
This is a sweet, gentle and original series for young readers (short chapters, for readers around 5 to 8 years) and it’s totally princess-free! It provides opportunities for discussion of cultural difference and non-nuclear family dynamics and would sit nicely on any school library shelf. Highly recommended!
I received review copies of Chook Chook: Mei’s Secret Pets and Chook Chook: Little and Lo in the City courtesy of Wai Chim, but all opinions are my own. Wai Chim’s books are published by UQP.
This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 reading list.