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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Review: The Garden of Empress Cassia

The opening paragraph of The Garden of Empress Cassia sent me winging back to China. One of the first things to strike me about China when we arrived in Beijing for a four-year posting was the smells - the fragrance, the odour, the scents - so different from Australia.

And I loved that about China.

Young Mimi, however, hates smelling different. She hates looking different. She hates how she doesn't fit in with the other children at her school. She may be Chinese-Australian but she might as well be from another planet. Her parents speak with a funny accent and her father's shop of pongy Chinese herbs and remedies is just too embarrassing.


Mimi doesn't tell her mother and academia-focused father she's being bullied by some girls at school. She also doesn't tell them she's wants to secretly take drawing classes during her lunch hour with the lovely Miss O'Dell. And when her art teacher hands her a striking box of pastels that once belonged to an ancient Chinese princess... she never dreams of the magical possibility about to unfold.

Reminiscent of the lustre of the Mary Poppins scene where Mary and the children fall into sidewalk drawings and experience another glorious world, Wang's story is an enchanting, culture-steeped tale of warmth, beauty and drama. Her characters are beautifully crafted, her plot sensitively threaded and her voice clear and lusciously descriptive. Not only do the scenes of the book beautifully unfold, the smells, the emotion, the tension is palpable.

Reading The Garden of Empress Cassia was like taking a peek inside the childhood of author Wang - the emotions she must have felt from being 'different', the artistic passion she no doubt experienced (the author is also an established illustrator) and the relationships she developed that no doubt helped her find her 'place' in the world.

I'm so glad she found that place - and is able to share her wonderful stories with children everywhere.

Title: The Garden of Empress Cassia
Author: Gabrielle Wang
Publisher: Penguin, $17.95 RRP
Publication Date: 2 September 2002
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780143300274
For ages: 8 - 12

Type: Junior Fiction

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