Judged by Andrée • Find her on Goodreads
For Battle, part the third, I have been asked to choose between Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại and Mine for Keeps by Jean Little. Unlike most of the other battle pairings I’ve judged in the past, these books are actually quite similar, not in terms of details or writing style, but in essentials.
Both are rather charming coming of age stories featuring young female protagonists. The protagonists, Mai in Listen, Slowly and Sally in Mine for Keeps, are thrust into whole new worlds at the start of their respective books. Mai is being forced to accompany her grandmother on a trip back to Vietnam so her grandmother can finally get some closure on her grandfather’s death (a trip that Mai Does. Not. Want. To. Go. On.). Sally is going home to live with her family permanently after spending most of her life living at a special school for the disabled because of her cerebral palsy.
One girl is terrified – that no one will like her, that she won’t be able to cope outside of her special school, that she’ll never fit in. The other is frustrated – she’s a good kid, so why does she have to spend her entire summer in Vietnam instead of with her friends (and the boy she might like) at the beach? Both books are grounded in family and friends. I was struck by the realism of the sibling relationships in Mine for Keeps, squabbling and supportive almost at the same time. In Listen Slowly I was touched by Mai’s relationship with her grandmother (and amused by her blatant attempts to manipulate her parents). The Vietnamese village with all of Mai’s maybe-aunts and cousins forms the same kind of supportive circle that Sally’s family (and eventually her classmates) form for her. Though admittedly, being older and approaching her teenage years, Mai seems to appreciate this support (and interference) less.
While I enjoy the family dynamics, I really love the friendships that develop over the course of both novels: Sally with her adorable little dog Suzie, and with her classmates Libby and ever-practical Elsje, and Mai with Ùt. Both authors do a really good job of building genuine friendships, and showing the effects they have on the girls. I also found it interesting that both novels used the friendships as a way of commenting on the immigrant experience. Mai is the daughter of immigrants returning to her parents’ country of birth, and trying to understand the people there. Sally’s struggle dealing with her physical disability in a new environment is compared with the struggles of Elsje and her family as they adjust to living in Canada, having recently immigrated from Holland.
Full disclosure: Beth, you assigned Jean Little to a Canadian, and a Canadian from southern Ontario at that. Jean Little is a celebrated Canadian children’s author, and one we proudly claim. I knew all about Jean Little as a kid. My sense was that she was a Big Deal, and wrote Good Books. Before this battle, I had never read Mine for Keeps (though I read at least one of her other books when I was younger). I do remember seeing Mine for Keeps at the school library, and immediately thinking that it was exactly the type of book my parents would love for me to read, the kind with Lessons to make me a Better Person. Obviously, I instinctively rebelled (most of my childhood “rebellions” were similar in nature). I very deliberately never read it, though I was the only person aware of my stubborn stance on the subject. (I’d forgotten about it myself until I picked the book up from the library a few weeks ago and recognized the cover – it’s the same edition. Seriously Beth, my eight year old self was not impressed.)
One of the reasons I bring it up is that if both of these books have a flaw, that’s essentially it. They are very clearly discussing important issues; lessons are being conveyed, often none too subtly. But, while it’s not subtle, the lessons aren’t really being shoved down your throat either, because the stories are both so incredibly genuine. Any lessons a reader might find emerge naturally from the lives of these two lovely little girls. Both are just good stories; one happens to feature a disabled girl, and the other a girl who’s learning more about her family’s history. Both gave me that warm happy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I get when I’m reading a book that I really love, and can really empathize with. Multiple times. The books manage to generate the kind of connection with the characters that you want when you’re reading (at least I do). And both do it with and a lot of fun and humour; while the subjects are serious, the books don’t take themselves so. Seriously, didn’t matter if it was Elsje or one of the never ending Vietnamese aunts ordering people around, I giggled a lot.
Whether discussing disability, cultural differences, or the importance of family and true friends, both books manage not to descend into preachiness. Read both. They’re worth it.
Unfortunately, I can’t send both forward. I can only choose the one I like better.
Listen, Slowly, while fantastic at conveying setting and cultural differences, sometimes felt like a bit… much. Mai’s parents were almost too perfectly good (human rights lawyer, doctor who travels to Vietnam every summer to help kids there). Her North American best friend in contrast felt too superficial. I understand the point of it (and I’m not saying it’s unrealistic), but it may have been a bit on the nose. Plus, I’ve never been much of a fan of “kid is forced to spend a summer doing something they expect to hate and so spend the first 100 or so pages sulking” (regardless of how understandable such a reaction is).
Which is why, overcoming the (still-stubborn) echoes of my eight-year old self’s irrational grudge, I choose Mine for Keeps. Because even though it was written 50 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated. Because while it has its own moments of “worthiness,” the story worked better for me thanks to a slightly younger protagonist (and intended audience). Because Sally and her little dog Suzie were adorable. Because all the kids made me laugh. And because it honestly felt like it could have taken place just around the corner from home.