Li Jun and the Iron Road by Anne Tait

Li Jun and the Iron Road was adapted from the TV miniseries, The Iron Road.   Li Jun is  a young Chinese girl whose father Li Junhas gone to Canada to build the railroads.  After a time he has not been heard from or sent money, so Li Jun is sent by he mother to work as a servant for the first wife of the head of their clan in Hong Kong. When her mother dies, she is determined not to return to her abusive position, but to travel to Canada to work on the railroad and seek her father, Li Man.

LI Jun goes back to Hong Kong, disguised as a boy, and gets work in a firecracker factory.  There she also earns extra cash delivering laundry.  One of her customers, a kind man who is an alcoholic named Mr. Relic, becomes her tutor and teaches her Engllish.  Another mentor is Mr. Zhou from the fireworks factory.  In one of my favorite scenes from the book, Mr. Zhou teaches Li Jun how to explode a walnut shell without shattering the nut inside.  This will be a valuable skill when she becomes a railroad builder.

There is a lot to be commended in this book.  Baits can paint intimate scenes, like the one of her working with Mr. Zhou, or moments with her mother, but it all seems very rushed.  She seems to become an excellent English speaker overnight.  Her daily life in the railway is not fully explored and her relationship with Mr. James proceeds too quickly.

Nevertheless the story of Chinese railway workers, the discrimination, unsafe conditions, the lying and cheating that were used to get cheap labor is told.

I would give this 2 1/2 stars and recommend it to 4th and 5th graders.  It may have been intended for older audiences, but it lacks substance for it to be a praiseworthy YA read.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

fuzzy_mudAfter a short history of the once elegant building that now houses the Woodridge Academy in Heath Cliff, PA, Sachar jumps into the middle of a blustering, and somewhat gross, lunchtime conversation among some boys in the 7th grade about a hermit who lives in the woods next to their school.. Tamaya and some friends from the 5th grade are sitting with these boys when she enters the conversation and right away someone calls her a “real Goody Two Shoes.” She wonders when the rules changed, when it became bad to be good?

That very afternoon she expects to walk home with an older neighbor, Marshall. She is not allowed to walk to school or back alone, but he has decided to ditch his usual path. He is afraid of an encounter with a bully, Chad, who has been threatening to beat him up. She breaks the rules and follows him.  Not only do they get lost, but she has a bad fall. While Marshall goes off to a leg to find the way, Tamaya notices some fuzzy mudlike substance. At the same time, Chad appears and attacks Marshall. Chad threatens her as being next, but she grabs some of the mud and shoves it into his face.

All the way home and all night Marshall worries about meeting Chad. Then when Chad doesn’t show up at school the next day, he wishes Chad would just come in and beat him up. When the principal comes into the classroom to announce that Chad hadn’t gone home the night before, he freaks.

What they don’t know, but we do, is that there have been some secret government meetings about the goings on about 30 miles from the school at SunRay Farm where a scientist has been developing “a single-celled living creature that is totally unnatural to this planet… [in order to] burn them alive inside automobile engines.” These creatures were formed from DNA altered slime mold.

So begins an environmental disaster story that is exciting and scary. I love the way each chapter has an illustration with a petri dish that starts off empty, but begins to multiply exponentially. As Tamaya comes down with a rash, the incredible multiplication of the ergonyms is revealed with increasing figures from 2 x 1 = 2 to 2 x 32,768 = 65,536, giving us the sense that this threat is unbeatable.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to preview this wonderful book.