Julia Song, Korean-American girl, and her best friend Patrick, a Caucasian-American, are working together on a project for their local farm club. They are in seventh grade and have been friends since Julia moved to Plainfield from Chicago. Patrick loves kimchee, Julia hates how it smells up her house and how spicy it is. They want to do something that they can enter into two categories, Animal Husbandry and Domestic Arts, so they will have a better chance at winning a blue ribbon at the state fair. They are both smart, hard working kids, and together they know they will do a fabulous project. Julia’s mom suggests that they grow silk worms, something she and her grandmother used to do in Korea. Patrick does some Internet research and thinks it is a great idea. Julia is not so sure. She wants to do something “American”, not at all Korean. But she keeps that to herself, not wanting to disappoint Patrick. After a few mishaps and bumps in the road they get their silkworm eggs and set up their aquarium and start filming their development. I turns out the only thing silkworms will eat is Mulberry tree leaves, and the only Mulberry tree in Plainfield is at the home of a black man. Julia’s mom doesn’t like blacks. She doesn’t say it out loud, but Julia thinks she can interpret her mother’s frozen face and pressing questions to mean that mom is uneasy and uncomfortable in his presence.
The themes of friendship, honesty, facing fears, and finding creative solutions to practical problems are all interwoven in this story. The underlying theme is that of racism and the assumptions people make of others without being aware their own thinking. Julia is figuring all this out by thinking through all the stages in the process of raising silkworms, by her interactions and relationships with her friend, her mom, and the other adults in her life such as teachers, mentors, and friendly neighbors. I really like the approach to working out an understanding of racism and the direct examples of how racism has effected Julia’s life. This is exactly the kind of discussion kids need to be having, and adults often shy away from out of discomfort or lack of confidence in their ability to approach it.
The writing style is simple and direct. I think it would be a good book for a mixed ability reading group in third through fifth grade. There is plenty of fodder for discussion and the ups and downs of the character’s situations and interactions is stimulating and exciting. Interspersed between the chapters are out-take discussions between the author and the main character, Julia. They discuss the development of the story, the writing process, the characters and the conflicts. For a writing class working on fiction this would be an effective tool for getting students to pay attention to the writer’s craft as they are engaged in a compelling story.
Linda Sue Park has a great webpage with the diary her father kept while raising silkworms during the writing of the book. She also has a Live Journal.