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Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Thursday, November 19, 2015

4.5 Stars

After her father's death, young Kimberly Chang and her mother immigrate from Hong Kong to New York in hopes of building better lives. Kimberly's aunt and uncle run a factory and have promised Kimberly's mom a place to live and work. The work turns out to be in a sweatshop and the place to live is in an abandoned, derelict apartment building where they're forced to burrow under old carpeting to stay warm. Their only means of heating the apartment is by turning on the oven and leaving the door open.

Kimberly is a brilliant student and eventually sets herself apart, despite speaking very little English when she first arrives in New York. In the evenings, she works in the factory, even at the age of eleven, helping her mom meet her impossible quotas and earn the few dollars they live on weekly.

This book was so heartbreaking so much of the time. I adored Kimberly. She's such a good daughter, friend, and student. She's trying so hard to be everything to everyone. Her life is always hard, but it's hardest when she first arrives, with no comprehension of American culture and little comprehension of the language. School bullies and harsh teachers make her transition harder than it has to be. But isn't that the way of things? Why is kindness so hard for some people?

Kimberly's aunt is terrible! Kimberly has been taught to honor her elders and she does her best. But the aunt just treats them worse and worse. She seems to have always been jealous of her sister, Kimberly's mom. Now, as Kimberly's intelligence becomes evident, she's jealous of Kimberly too. She takes revenge in some pretty heinous ways. I just wanted to reach through the pages and throttle this woman!

I could never quite place when this was supposed to be taking place. I think that's on purpose. Or maybe I just missed it. Either way, I know I always think of sweatshops and child labor as occurring in other countries or decades ago. I got the feeling that this was supposed to be in the recent past, especially since it seems to be loosely based on the author's own childhood. There are always greedy people who will manipulate the system and take advantage of others' fear of authorities and ignorance of the law.

I loved the ending. I found it to be absolutely perfect. Would I have said the same thing even ten years ago? No. Back then I think I would have been very unhappy with it. Older and wiser, I can fully appreciate it now. As a book that seems to be written for young/new adults, I'm not sure how the ending will be received by that audience.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Grayce Wey. I liked her reading but it did take me some time to get accustomed to the accents she used.

I highly recommend this book. It has a strong main character and will open your eyes to how others live. Hopefully it will help us all to gain a little more understanding and empathy as well.

Read or listen to an excerpt.

Find author Jean Kwok on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Buy Girl in Translation at



I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop's, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site. My opinions are completely my own.

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