Saturday, December 24, 2016

The JUV FIC Corner Presents "Tom's Midnight Garden"

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Remember back when I used to do children's chapter book features called The JUV FIC Corner? Yeah, I barely do either - my last one was technically in June of 2013! I say "technically" because I think my overall reading habits have become a lot more juvenile in the past two years thanks to my job, so it's not such a rarity that I focus on children's lit anymore.

More to the point, I started doing those posts several years ago to feature some of my childhood favorites after re-reading them as an adult. It's always a lovely connection to check in with the beloved stories that were such monumental pieces of my reading history. It's difficult, as an adult, to recollect the kind of innocent wonder, intrigue, and impact that is an inherent part of childhood. Re-reading these favorite stories, I think, gives us back a piece of that feeling for just a moment.

I remember discovering Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce while lying in my grandparents' floor watching Reading Rainbow. After hearing a teaser, I just had to read it. And I must have, at the time, but that time is so long ago, probably 20 years ago at this point, that I can't actually remember much beyond that random day in front of their floor console television set. Something suddenly inspired me to find this book again, and luckily the Nashville Public Library had an original copy available in their annex.

In this lesser-known story (at least to modern American audiences), Tom is sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle after his brother contracts the measles. Now living in an upstairs apartment with no garden in which to run around and play, Tom immediately bemoans his lost summer of adventure with his brother Peter. One sleepless night, though, he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike a thirteenth hour, and when he goes to investigate, Tom discovers the backdoor now opens into a huge, beautiful garden that definitely wasn't there before... Now, every night when the clock strikes thirteen, Tom escapes to this magical Victoria-era world where he befriends a girl named Hatty who becomes his steadfast companion and playmate.

It's so different from modern stories, yet so alike many classic stories in children's literature where fantasies are actualized. A boy steps outside when the clock strikes a mysterious hour and the whole world is different. The explanation doesn't matter, not yet at least; it's the discovery and exploration that cause the mind-racing, can't sleep kind of anticipation and excitement. This must be where I first fell in love with a time travel story, because the concept is so much a part of the best imaginings - a safe kind of adventure of discovery.

And like many childhood classics, the language is complex, never simplified for an adolescent audience. Pearce jumps a scene to different time, character, or perspective without any warning, in a way that feels apt to scene cuts on film, not narrative in a novel. It's surprising, and delightful, especially to an adult reader like myself, but I wonder about its 21st-century accessibility to young readers. (Most of my technology-dependent modern preteens, sadly, would probably not appreciate the simple imagination of this story.)

To me, though, it's wonderful storytelling and perfectly magical.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nonfiction | Striving for Success in China's Factories

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With only two (!!) categories remaining on my seemingly never-ending quest to finish the Read Harder Challenge I began in 2015, I was finally able to pull a title off my existing to-read list for the "book that takes place in Asia." Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China is a nonfiction exposé on the life of China's numerous (130 million, to be exact) migrant workers. The story is neither thrilling nor uncommon; instead, Chang chronicles the everyday existence of these millions of people that live a life entirely unrelatable to our Western ideals.

Set primarily in the industrial town of Dongguan, Factory Girls tells a common story - that of millions of girls who leave their rural towns for a life and job in the city. As the older generation stays planted in these small, rural towns, continuing a familial tradition of agriculture, the younger generation's future has changed due to China's modern industrialization. Children, particularly the girls, leave for the factories, becoming their families' primary breadwinners. With their migration comes a new sense of freedom and opportunity in a society where education is valued but legitimacy is not (necessarily), where success depends on street smarts, and where, it seems, anything is possible if you work hard enough and smart enough for it.

Chang is a former Wall Street Journal correspondent of Chinese descent. Unfamiliar with, and a bit wary of, her own ancestry, she explores this facet of modern Chinese society from a voyeuristic perspective through select women she follows over the course of three years. She chronicles their move from job to job, always on the lookout for something better, with little loyalty or regard to particular employers; she observes friendships and relationships that seem superficial at best, entirely artificial at worst. It's a world where better jobs often come after lying on your resume, where pyramid schemes and scams run rampant to prey on hopeful ambition, and where relationships can disappear entirely with the simple loss of a cell phone.

The strength of this book lies in Chang's straightforward way of reporting the story. It's not a dastardly tale of sweatshop work. The impression I get, in fact, is that the sweatshop horrors is the stereotype of yesteryear. Though the work is certainly more monotonous and demanding of time (6-day work weeks, for example) than we are used to, the conditions, based on Chang's telling, don't seem harsh or cruel. In this sense, it's not a story of drama and hardship; it's the story of how these migrant women are constantly working for betterment. There is no passive acceptance of life; these women strive to educate themselves for better jobs and new opportunities.

A factory run by TAL Group that makes US-brand apparel for such companies as
J. Crew and Hugo Boss; Photo via New York Times

Interspersed with the present-lives of Chang's migrant subjects is Chang's own family history as migrants to the U.S. after China's Cultural Revolution. Despite providing some context of 20th-century Chinese history, particularly in relation to Communism, this part of the narrative seemed superfluous to me; the intrigue really lies in the everyday lives of these women who have such different lifestyles and values. I am more curious about the future of these women, living in a city populated by people under 30. Do they eventually return to their rural towns? Or do they continue to live in these industrial cities, creating a new tier of the labor force, the "self-made women?" Perhaps China's industrial society still continues to evolve.

What's most remarkable about this story, as a Western reader, is our very real and legitimate connection to it. This is not a lifestyle or job contained within China's borders; rather, it's entirely a product of worldwide, and particularly U.S., demand for cheaply manufactured consumer products. These factories, and therefore these women and their choices and their lives, can attribute their very existence to our want of new iPhones. Or Nikes. Or 50" TVs. And how utterly distressing and perplexing is this?