Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (Amazon link for illustration only, please support local bookstores when possible)
First, a tangentially related review. If you’re a librarian, spend a lot of time at you library, know librarians, or maybe a teacher and you aren’t reading Unshelved, well, you should be, is all. On Sundays they do “Book Club” strips which are basically book talks, and that’s how I found out about Project Mulberry. (The strip in question is here.)
Since reading that strip gives a better and more concise overview than I could, I’m just going to jump into my reactions to this book. LOVED it! The characters are all really likeable, and the changing relationship between the main character, Julia, and her younger brother is sweet. Not in a cloying way, just realistic. Not that I had a younger brother, but I remember seeing my friends with siblings go through a similar sea change when we were young. I would definitely recommend this book to kids having trouble getting along with younger siblings. Julia’s friend Patrick not only explains some of the reasons why siblings might have trouble with each other, but models some good coping and redirection tactics for the older sibling to use. I also enjoyed that Julia is amazed by how well her friend handles her younger brother, but also points out that he isn’t able to do the same thing with his younger siblings.
Between chapters Park has included sort of a running commentary, like you might find on a dvd, that takes the form of conversations between herself and Julia, her main character. She explains what she’s doing at the beginning of the book, and makes it clear that these are not at all necessary to the story, and can be entirely skipped if the reader so chooses. The interludes function as a behind the scenes look at how the story was written and what the author and character think about the book. There are also tidbits including where character names came from, and certain character quirks. Many young readers probably will skip these, but any kid who wants to write could learn a lot about story crafting from the way Park interacts with her character.
Another big reason for me to recommend this book is the discussion of race that comes up. The author and main character are Korean-American, Julia’s best friend is white, and the character of Mr. Dixon is black. Park doesn’t shy away from the topic, nor does she offer an easy solution or fix to the problem. Instead the reader is invited to the discussion and confusion happening in Julia’s head as she works through the problems she sees before her. Is her mom racist because she doesn’t seem to trust Mr. Dixon? Or is she just concerned about her daughter? Is Mr. Dixon racist because he assumes Julia is Chinese? What about Julia’s own issues with being Korean, and not liking the silkworm project because it’s “too Korean?” I felt like the questions were raised in a sensitive manner, giving readers something to think about without telling them what to think, exactly. I appreciated that the main character is a person of color, giving her perspective on such a difficult subject that many young readers will be faced with as they grow and see racism around them.
*Spoiler alert, I am about to discuss the ending for a second.*
I also loved that in the end, the kids had a fantastic project but didn’t actually win in their categories. They still got a triumphant ending without being totally unrealistic, and it’s something I’d like to see more of in childrens’ literature.
Overall this book gets an A+. I really enjoyed reading it and I think the 9-12 age range will get a lot out of it. I may go check out the author’s other books, including her Newberry winner, A Single Shard.