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Review: Girl in Transition by Jean Kwok

About the Book

Introducing a fresh, exciting new voice, an inspiring debut about a Chinese immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures. 

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly’s story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic American immigrant novel—a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.


This book was a page turner for me. I read in a single afternoon, eyes glued to see how Kim grew up and what happened to her. You feel for Kim (Ah-Kim), you relate to her, you want the best for her. Although the ending wasn't all I had hoped for, I thought it was correct for the story. It fit.

This book is about a girl and her mother moving from China to the United States- New York City in particular- and finding out that the American life as immigrant minorities is not easy, but it is precious. They live in a pitifully ramshackle apartment that Kim's aunt has placed them in, continually telling them she's looking for a nicer place for them to live in (the building and the surrounding area has been condemned). These two women, mother and cub as they say, go through such hardships but somehow manage to persevere.

This novel dives into the realities of horrific class-ism and poverty. Kim is an All-star student, yet she spends almost all of her free time helping her mother at the clothing factory. It's just expected and she doesn't complain. She knows what's necessary. This book does do a great job at pointing out the sad fact that child labor still exists and that for those who have to partake in it, it's a matter of survival. 

I wouldn't go as far as to say this book is a tragedy though, I believe this novel is a particularly potent look on people staying resolute through hard times, because they know they have no other choice. Kim's coming-of-age story is clearly one of being socially stunted, but she manages. She fortunately has a great best friend throughout, one who maintained genuine love and care for her friend Kim who was not as open about herself as best friends tend to be. 

Another aspect of this book that was especially interesting was how Kim's mother reacts to certain issues or social situations. She supports Kim in the way she knows best and sometimes that does not necessarily go as the way she would hope it would. It's endearing and clear throughout the book that Kim's mom loves her very dearly, as she left China and her job as a music teacher behind.

Overall, I believe this is an exceptionally good read. Easy, fast paced, and entrancing, it's the kind of book that's modern and informative, and also very revealing. Lastly, it's a particularly potent novel about one human life, which makes it worth reading.

Reviewed by Amy Richardson

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