As we were doing our online research for books that will fit our bimonthly theme, this picture book by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Steve Björkman came highly recommended, thus I Hate English! it is.
The Beauty that is Chinese Language. Having lived here in Singapore for nearly four years now, I must confess that aside from a few Mandarin words, I haven’t really had the opportunity to learn the language yet. My ten year old daughter knows more than I do, since Mandarin is one of her subjects in school. I am familiar though with how beautiful, lyrical, and intricate the Chinese language is (along with its many dialects): both spoken and written – where each character means a world of things. This is one of the things that Mei Mei had to give up when her family moved from Hong Kong to New York.
Mei Mei hated that she had to move to a different country where people looked and sounded so different. I recall visiting Hong Kong twice (once in 2008 and another time in 2010 for a study trip with my colleagues from Singapore), and I am aware of how fiercely they value their language. Thus, I could understand where Mei Mei is coming from and I smiled as I witness her struggle with the English language not because she found it difficult, but because she felt that something is being torn apart from her if she starts speaking in a different tongue.
The Furies of English and Losing One’s Self. Again, I had to smile when I saw how Mei Mei described the English language:
Such a lonely language. Each letter stands alone and makes its own noise Not like Chinese. Sometimes English letters fight each other. “We will go on a class TRIP,” the teacher said in English. T-R-I-P, thought Mei Mei. The letters “T” and “R” bang against each other, and each keeps its own sound. Not like Chinese.
It is good to take note that schools at present now have an ESL class (English as Second Language) to provide assistance to students who do not have English as their first language so that they can adjust better in school. While Mei Mei is a whiz at Math and she understands perfectly what her teacher says, she refuses to speak in English because language is interwoven with her sense of identity, her sense of who she is. I was deeply moved when Mei Mei described how she felt the moment she started to ‘learn’ and ‘like’ English through a very special teacher, Nancy with the short hair and the blue eyes:
That night in bed Mei Mei felt afraid again. She wasn’t sure why. She felt she might lose something. She felt she had lost something. She felt she would lose something.
How Mei Mei was able to move past the fear of speaking in a foreign tongue without losing herself, I shall leave for you to discover. It is important to witness these journeys through young children’s eyes as they wrestle with their own anxieties and apprehensions about who they are in a country different from their birthplace. It is through experiencing that pain, realizing and acknowledging their truth that growth happens and their beautiful and more textured selves allowed to emerge.
Recommended Links for Teachers. I was able to find quite a few resources for this book. Scholastic.com has created a Discussion Guide that includes a list of questions that can be discussed in class as well as possible activities that can be done inside the classroom. Ellen Levine has also spoken about what prompted her to write the book and her own reflections about students like Mei Mei who may be struggling in a typical American classroom.
About the Author and Illustrator (taken from the jacketflap of the book).
In addition to her writing career, Ellen Levine has also served as a staff attorney for the Prisoners’ Rights Project in New York, as a television documentary producer, and as a teacher in New York’s adult literacy program. She served on the Board of Directors of the Chinatown Planning Council and taught English to Chinese immigrant children and adults. She has written several non-fiction titles for Scholastic. Ms. Levine splits her time between New York City and Salem, New York.
Steve Björkman has been a successful illustrator in the advertising field and in the greeting card business. He has illustrated many children’s books. Mr. Björkman lives in Irvine, California, with his wife and three children.
I Hate English! By Ellen Levine and Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Scholastic Inc, New York, 1989. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.
ALA Notable Children’s Book 1989, A Blue Ribbon Book. Parents Choice Award.
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