Only One Year

Sharon can hardly believe the news. Di Di, her two-year-old brother, is being taken to China to spend a year with their grandparents. Why can’t he go to day care or be watched by a babysitter when Mama goes back to work? Sharon wonders. But her parents say it is better for relatives to take care of little children.

After Di Di first leaves, Sharon and her younger sister, Mary, pore over the photographs their grandma sends, trying to keep their little brother fresh in their minds. As the year passes, the girls become involved with school, friends, and hobbies. They think of Di Di less often. Then one day he is home again, and it feels as if a stranger has entered their lives. The children struggle to sort out their mixed emotions but soon discover that the bonds among siblings hold strong.

This reassuring story is a gentle tribute to the enduring love of family, even when it is tested by a difficult choice.

Di Di
Author perspective

Many of my stories deal with separation. Only One Year, Shanghai Messenger, The Key Collection, Grandfather Counts, Goldfish and Chrysanthemums, Eclipse, The Bear Makers all include family members who are separated by thousands of miles of ocean. Maybe this theme resonates with me because of my own family situation. When I was a child, my mother was often sad because her father lived behind the iron curtain. During the cold war, we were not able to see him; travel and communicate by mail were difficult. The sadness of my mother was transferred to me. My husband’s family situation was in some ways similar. My mother-in-law was separated from her entire family in China, and for years she didn’t even know if her parents or siblings were alive. Recently, I have had several English as a Second Language students from Asia, Africa, and Latin America who have sent their children back to their home countries to be raised by grandparents for a certain period of time. Only One Year comes from their stories. Although this idea may seem strange to some Americans, in many cultures, family means extended family. Grandparents are an integral part of the lives of their children and grandchildren. In the United States, we tend to segregate people by age. Old people often live in retirement centers or nursing homes. This is rare in China where often many generations live together. One of my husband’s uncles who hosted us in Shanghai lives in an apartment with his wife and granddaughter. His daughter and son-in-law live downstairs. Extended family members share everything and make decisions together. This is also the case in Only One Year. I hope readers see that there are so many ways to be a family. In Only One Year, Sharon and Mary have a hard time adjusting to Di Di’s absence. Later they have a hard time adjusting when he returned. But they do learn to accept and embrace the new situation. Although it is sometimes difficult, family bonds hold strong.



Cheng, known for exploring issues of diversity (Shanghai Messenger, illustrated by Ed Young, 2005, etc.), tackles a custom that many will find disorienting. Sharon and her younger sister are upset that their two-year-old brother, Di Di, will live with extended family in China for the “only one year” of the title. Mother explains that it is better for him to be cared for by family than by strangers at day care while everyone is at work or school. “We have to do what is best for Di Di,” she says. “Not what is best for us.” Sharon’s narration follows the sisters throughout the year as they attend school, make friends and play, all the while missing Di Di. Those familiar with this practice will appreciate the book’s frank and thoughtful tone that never diminishes the family’s longing. For others, Di Di’s trauma upon his return, when he no longer recognizes his parents or sisters nor understands or speaks English, will resonate. An author’s note provides some background, but the notion may well be too jarring for many readers to accommodate easily. Wong’s graceful black-and-white sketches complement the text. (Fiction. 7-11)


Although she sometimes finds him troublesome, fourth-grader Sharon can’t bear the idea that her two- year-old brother, Di Di, will spend a whole school year with relatives in China while she and her first- grade sister, Mary, go to school and her parents work. Time passes faster than she expects, as she and Mary forge a new relationship by building a dollhouse and playing school after homework is done. Di Di returns in the summer, and after a period of readjustment fits back into the family. Soon he’s off to preschool himself. While it is not atypical for immigrant families to send children to relatives, it is an unusual subject for a chapter book. The first-person narrative opens up Sharon’s conflicted feelings, and it is clear that what is best for Di Di is not easy for anyone, including her parents. Realistically, the fitting- back-in period is even more difficult than the absence. Supportive black-and-white illustrations and a glossary/pronunciation guide for the occasional Chinese words and phrases complete the appealing package of this gentle family story." Booklist Feb. 15

The Horn Book

"While American children might be initially surprised to read about a small boy living away from his immediate family for such a long time, Cheng’s tender story reminds us that there are many ways to raise children. Frequent, homey black-and-white illustrations and back matter such as a pronunciation guide, glossary, and author’s note add to the yo

Publisher's Weekly

"a quiet yet resonant novel that explores a practice unfamiliar to most American children. . . . Moving moments underscore the void his absence leaves. . . . further humanized by Wong's delicate line art. Cheng's concluding note gives cultural context to her insightful story."

Book type: 
Chapter book
Lee and Low Books
Nicole Wong
Publication date: 
Feb 2010
Interest level: 
Parents' Choice Recommended Title, Feb 2010
Red Dot Book Award Shortlist International School Libraries Network, Dec 2010
Paterson Prize for Books for Young People (grades 4-6), Dec 2010
Best Children's Books of the Year Bank Street College of Education, Dec 2010