The Year of the Book

In Chinese, peng you means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated. When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through A Wrinkle in Time, or peering over My Side of the Mountain, books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world. Books, however, can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend. She’ll have to discover that on her own. In the tradition of classics like Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and Eleanor Estes’ One Hundred Dresses, this novel subtly explores what it takes to make friends and what it means to be one.

Author perspective

Like Anna Wang in The Year of the Book, my youngest daughter, Ann, made a drawstring bag and used it for her lunch and other important things like acorns and buckeyes. In our family we save scraps of fabric, leftover yarn, paper, and use them to make new things. I think this is why so many of the characters in my books are resourceful and creative like Anna. Her character is based on a combination of my two daughters, Jane and Ann, and myself. I always called Jane my reader girl. She learned to read at age 4 and read almost obsessively in elementary school. Sometimes her teachers told me that they were worried because her book world seemed more real to her than the events going on around her. But Jane seemed happy, even if at times alone. My younger daughter Ann was more sociable than Jane, and got along more easily with other kids. But like Anna, she sometimes felt left out and found solace in making things. She liked to draw and make cards and cheer people up. Anna is like me too, in many ways, and some of her experiences are mine. I had a crossing guard who told me every day how many more minutes we had until the bell rang. I put icicles and hailstones in the freezer. And I escaped into the world of books. Ms. Simmons is based on my kids’ second grade teacher. I wished they could have stayed in her classroom forever. She understood and loved the quirks of her students. She was open yet firm, and funny too. What a gift. My husband is Chinese and our children are half Asian. Many of the experiences that Anna has in this book are based on the feelings of my children growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Often they were the only Asian kids in their classes, and if there were other Asian girls, people sometimes mixed them up. We tried hard to give our children a strong Asian identity, but in a city that is not very diverse, this was sometimes hard. On the other hand, our children’s lives have been enriched immensely by their multicultural background and they are proud of all facets of their heritage. Year of the Book is like a collage of my family, neighbors, and friends. I hope that readers will see part of themselves in Anna and her friends as they navigate the world of family, friends, and community.

Publisher's Weekly

Anna Wang, the narrator of this tender novel, isn’t having an easy time navigating fourth grade. Feeling left out when her friend Laura begins hanging out with another girl, Anna takes refuge in her beloved library books. She is proud of her Chinese-born mother, who is going to school to become a nurse, yet embarrassed by her mother’s imperfect English and her part-time housecleaning job. Trying to balance her cultural identities, Anna is also conflicted about attending Chinese school and learning that language. Cheng (Only One Year) credibly portrays Anna’s budding maturity, as she sets aside her resentment toward Laura and reaches out to her when her family hits a rough patch. Anna’s warm rapport with her supportive teacher, a cheerful crossing guard, and a kind widower add emotional depth. Though Anna’s musings can grow repetitious, the novel offers a well-rounded portrait of a sympathetic girl and her burgeoning sense of self. Halpin’s (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything) tidy halftone pictures help flesh out Anna’s world. Ages 6–9. Agent: Elizabeth Harding, Curtis Brown. Illustrator’s agent: Emily van Beek, Folio Literary Management. (May) Reviewed on: 04/02/2012 - Mar 2012

School Library Journal

Gr 4-6–There is nothing quiet and self-conscious Anna Wong would rather do than lose herself in a book. Cheng weaves a simple story of how the child’s inner world, built around the pages of books, shifts outward to include her family, a kind crossing guard, a widower, and a beloved teacher. Most of all, Anna gradually learns to open her heart to the joys and challenges of friendship. The writing is gentle and engaging. Cheng gives readers glimpses into the heart of a girl without the allure of action or adventure. The story doesn’t need them. Readers are led to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary, and to witness how kindness can draw trust and create confidence in a hesitant child. Dialogue is natural and uncontrived. Details of Chinese culture are interwoven throughout the story. Anna’s mother works hard to acquire English-language skills, learn to drive, hold down a job, and give her children the opportunity to learn Chinese. Her struggles contrast with those of her American-born Chinese husband. Anna’s friend’s sad tale of family breakdown is also a part of the story, and children experiencing similar difficulties will relate to Laura’s grief and fear. Anna creates hand-sewn lunch bags, and she and Laura make bags for all the people who are special to them. (Instructions are on the book jacket.) Readers will not find chills and thrills in this book, but they will discover the value of empathy and compassion, and the rewards of tolerance and friendship.–Corrina Austin, Locke’s Public School, St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada - May 2012

Horn Book

Before the first chapter begins, we already know something about narrator Anna Wang: she always has her head stuck in a book. Nine-year-old Anna reads for all the right reasons (“Soon I am with Sam [in My Side of the Mountain], hollowing out a stump to make my own little house”), but she also uses reading as a shield against social exclusion (of the specialized fourth-grade-girl kind) and her own lack of confidence (“her face looks friendly, but I don’t know her so I’m afraid to go over to the group. Instead I open my book and read standing up”). At school, Anna’s friend from last year, Laura, now hangs out with the popular girls; at home, Anna is ashamed of her mother’s English and fights with her about attending Chinese language school. But she keeps reading—specific children’s books, from Leo Lionni’s picture book Little Blue and Little Yellow to Jacqueline Woodson’s Hush, which are integrated into the narrative. Sometimes a book helps illuminate Anna’s own life (as when thinking about My Louisiana Sky helps her feel less critical of her mother’s imperfections); sometimes a book is part of the external plot (as when Laura and Anna, beginning to be friends again, dress up as Little Blue and Little Yellow for Halloween). As the year progresses, once in a while Anna even puts a book down. Cheng’s telling is as straightforward yet sympathetic as her self-contained main character; and Halpin’s often lighthearted pencil-and-wash sketches both decorate and enrich this perceptive novel. martha v. parravano

Bulletin Center for Children's Books

The following reviews will appear in the July/August 2012 issue of the Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books. Cheng, Andrea The Year of the Book. illus. by Abigail Halpin. Houghton,2012 146p ISBN 978-0-547-68463-5 $15.99   R Gr. 3-5 The other fourth-graders make a big deal out of Anna’s Chinese heritage, but she doesn’t even speak or understand much Chinese; in fact, she’s sometimes embarrassed by her Chinese-born mother’s cultural missteps. Additionally, she’s hurt by what she sees as her former friend Laura’s abandonment, since Laura has started hanging out with the more socially dominant Allison. Her solution to these worries is to lose herself in a book, and, increasingly, her books become her protection whenever she feels vulnerable. However, Laura eventually realizes that friendship with queen bee Allison is a complicated undertaking, and as she and Anna rekindle their friendship, Anna becomes more willing to set aside her books in order to interact with people. This is a remarkably pithy and nuanced portrait of a fourth-grader and her world, and the streamlined simplicity of Cheng’s writing and the brief page count make it accessible. Anna’s embarrassment about her mother, couched in disdain, is spot on, for example, as is her mother’s resultant frustration with her prickly daughter. The friendship drama is also well played, and many girls will recognize their own relationship struggles in these pages. This would make an excellent choice for a mother-daughter book group, and classrooms and libraries may want to stock multiple copies as well. Halpin’s monochromatic illustrations portray the characters with a warm, wide-eyed amiability tempered by crisp lines and a slight angularity that keep the scenes interesting as well as attractive. JH - Jul 2012

The New York Times Book Review

...The best of the three books, “The Year of the Book” by Andrea Cheng, tells the story of Anna Wang, a Chinese-American fourth grader who would much rather read than deal with a circle of mean girls — especially now that her former best friend, Laura, has joined them. This would be fodder for a very familiar coming-of-age yarn were it not for the author’s gift for subtlety and texture.

Entanglements at school are rarely as simple as they seem, and Cheng shows the reader that while Anna is indeed an outsider, she’s also a bit of a mean girl herself. When it becomes clear that Laura’s home life is less than happy — there are hints that her father may be abusive, even violent — Anna turns her back on Laura on more than one occasion.

Against this backdrop of social drama, literature becomes a prism for processing Anna’s experience, and Cheng beautifully weaves in the books Anna reads during what she calls her Year of the Book. (The books themselves would make a fabulous reading list for book lovers of any age: “My Side of the Mountain,” by Jean Craighead George; “Hush,” by Jacqueline Woodson; “The Prince and the Pauper,” by Mark Twain.)

And while Anna draws lessons from reading, she also hides in her books to avoid the messy work of friendship. Ultimately, it is Anna’s mother who teaches her what it means to be the sort of person you read about in novels. Mrs. Wang may struggle with the language, but she has no trouble translating the gift of nurturing friendship and building community.

“The Year of the Book” is strong enough to stand without pictures, but beautiful, delicate spot illustrations by Abigail Halpin help make it a feast meant to be devoured in one sitting. Halpin not only illustrates the covers of the books Anna reads, but also creates wonderful diagram drawings of the projects that consume Anna, from making a drawstring lunch bag out of old silk scraps to cooking won tons for a big family meal. “The Year of the Book” was a pleasure to read and more. This is a novel to treasure and to share with every middle-grade reader you know.         

Read the rest: 

Book type: 
Chapter book
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Abigail Halpin
Publication date: 
May 2012
Interest level: 
Bluebonnet Nominee, Jun 2015
Junior Library Guild selection, Apr 2012
Nominated for State Book awards in Florida, Texas, Rhode Island, Oregon, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Iowa, Arizona, and New Jersey., Jun 2014
Beverly Cleary Award Nomination, Jun 2014