Some novels straddle the line between adult and YA fiction, and can work from either perspective and for both audiences. With its first-person narration by an adolescent protagonist from the vantage point of her own adulthood, Girl in Translation, the accomplished first novel by Jean Kwok, is one of those fortunate crossovers.
Drawing on her own experience as a late 20th-century child immigrant from Hong Kong, Kwok creates a memorable character in Kimberly Chang, who arrives in Brooklyn with her mother, few possessions, rudimentary English-language skills, and a lot of pressure to succeed. Kimberly was a stellar student in China, and knows that repeating and exceeding her achievements in America is the best hope that she - and her mother - have for making a good life in their new country.
Kwok's depiction of the Changs' squalid living conditions - while they pay rent to the aunt who arranged their move to New York, I suspect they were actually illegal squatters - and the working conditions in a Chinatown clothing factory that evokes the very definition of sweatshop give the reader a vivid glimpse into a challenging life most of us may barely be aware of. The obstacles KImberly faces are significant, but so are the opportunities that come her away - and her drive to make the most of them. While some of the situations in the novel verge on the melodramatic or overly coincidental, they rarely cross the line; rather, Kwok's skilled writing gives them emotional truth and resonance, and it's not difficult to embrace these characters and their story.
I blew through Girl in Translation in an evening. The story engaged me quickly, and I can't imagine how a reader could keep from rooting for Kimberly. This novel was highly praised in its original hardcover release in 2010, and new readers are likely to echo that reaction as they discover it in paperback.