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Adult Lit: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary

Release Date: 4/29/2010

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2011 Alex Award List

About the Book: Eleven-year-old Kimberly Chang and her mother are brought to America by Kimberly's Aunt Paula. The transition from Hong Kong to American life is a long and frustrating road. Kimberly picks up on English quickly and adapts to American life easier than her mother. She begins to excel in school and is soon awarded a scholarship to a private school.

Kimberly struggles with excelling in school but constantly being an outsider. She and her mother owe a debt to Aunt Paula for bringing them to America and they work in the skirt factory that Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob run and are barely able to make ends meet. They live in a terrible apartment with roaches and no heat. Kimberly tries to make a better life for herself and her mother by doing well in school. But her feelings for a fellow factory worker named Matt may threaten her future and Kimberly must decide what exactly her future holds.

GreenBeanTeenQueen Says: I don't read a lot of literary fiction, but I was interested in Girl in Translation because it was on the 2011 Alex Awards list. Although an adult title, most of the book is spent with Kimberly during her teen years, and I think the coming of age story will hold a lot of teen appeal.

Kimberly is an engaging narrator and her struggles to adapt to life in America are heartbreaking. She's often an outsider and never quite fits in because of her clothes and race and her brain. But she doesn't take things laying down and she fights for herself in her new life which makes you want to cheer her on even more.

The author straddles Kimberly's dual identity skilfully and we see both sides of Kimberly-the shy smart girl at school who wants to rebel a bit and become more American and the girl at home who works in the factory, speaks Chinese, and struggles to hide her living conditions and work life. There is romance with Matt, but this is not a romance-while it's central to the plot, this is a very layered story and the focus is much more on Kimberly and her coming of age and success in school than anything else. The author does a great job of including Chinese sayings but explaining them so they weave into the story without feeling a bit jarring.

The book dragged a bit at times and it took me a bit to get into it. I did start to enjoy it more once Kimberly started at the private school-not sure why, but the story seemed to pick up a bit then.

Overall the story is heartbreaking and bittersweet. I think this would make a great book club pick. I highly recommend it.

Audiobook note: Early on, as Kimberly is still learning English, the author uses misspellings to show Kimberly's misunderstandings of the language. It took me awhile to understand that since I listened to it on CD. But once I got the print copy it made more sense-the misspellings didn't come through on audio. Other than that, the book is beautiful on audio.

Book Pairings: Bitter Melon by Cara Chow, A Step From Heaven by An Na

Full Disclosure: Reviewed from audiobook checked out from my public library


  1. I'm glad that you enjoyed this book, Sarah. I really connected with Kimberly's determination to get out of the horrible situation she and her mother are in and her drive to succeed. The ending took me by surprise and it broke my heart. I agree that though the book is marketed to adults, the story is very much about Kimberly growing up which should appeal to teens who are looking for multicultural literature.

  2. The ending is heartbreaking and I too was surprised by it! Kimberly is a great character and I loved how motivated and determined she was. I'm glad it's on the Alex list and I hope teens pick it up.

  3. Thanks for reviewing this one. It sounds really good, I will have to read it at some point. It sounds like a beautiful story.

  4. I have this on my TBR shelf... oh how I need summer vacation to make a dent in the shelves!

  5. I loved this one. I also listened to it on audio (which I thought was fabulous) and had no idea about misspellings! Now I have to go look at a book!

  6. I loved this book. What did you think of the prologue? It made me so nervous the entire book. I was terrified for Kimberly. I loved her from the beginning. The ending was so interesting. I liked that it was both sad and happy.
    I also loved Kimberly's mother - showing her smart and wise she was yet to Americans she was nothing. The dichotomy was both heartbreaking and something good for me to remember.

  7. Alison-

    Yes, the prologue made me nervous as well, especially as the story develops. I did like how the author weaved everything together and I was surprised by the end, which was beautiful and heartbreaking.

    I liked her mom too-how she was so smart but could never communicate that in America.

  8. Amanda-I didn't realize about the misspellings, either I just thought I heard a few words wrong or something at first, but then I got the print copy and it made more sense.

  9. I would have loved this book as a teen! I really enjoyed the book and consider it one of my favorites of 2010. When I heard of Bitter Melon, it did remind me of this book a little. Great review!

  10. Thanks so much for the wonderful review and all of the kind comments! I really appreciate it so much. Am working hard on my next book (not a sequel, although Kimberly and a surprise character will make a very brief cameo in it) and preparing for the paperback launch in May. I post updates on my Facebook fan page, so stop by if you get the chance:

    In any case, it made my day to happen upon this review and all of the nice comments! Thanks, everyone!

    Jean Kwok

  11. Wow-thanks Jean! I'm glad you found my review! And as you can see, you have lots of fans! And congrats on the Alex list!

  12. Sarah, I just finished this audiobook last week and OMG I didn't want it to eeeend!!! I tend to like audiobooks that are more fully voiced, but the story just pulled me in. Love, love, love!

  13. Abby-YAY! So glad you liked it. I tend to like fuller voices audiobooks too, but the story in this one made me like it a lot and I could overlook that it wasn't a full voiced narration.


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