Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han, illustrated by Julia Kuo.
Little Brown and Co., Hachette Book Group, New York, 2011.
Realistic fiction, 149 pages plus discussion guide.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 3.8 (worth 2.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
Korean-American third-grader Clara Lee has one big dream – to be Little Miss Apple Pie in her town’s annual Apple Blossom Festival. To make it she’ll need a lot of luck! But she’s also having bad dreams at night – maybe Grandpa can help.
There are two covers for this book. I have the version with the red background, which gives the impression that this book is intended for older middle-grade students. The main character is in third grade and while a somewhat older student could certainly read and enjoy it, this is an elementary school novel aimed at the 2nd to 5th grade chapter book market.
The cover with the yellow background and Clara spinning in a red dress is significantly better. Not only does it convey Clara’s personality better and show her at the appropriate age, it also is more dynamic and more likely to attract the appropriate readers. I left this one out – the kid at this age and reading level had no interest, while N picked it up and didn’t read it because it was “about a little kid.”
It’s a shame that an inaccurate cover would turn off readers, because I enjoyed this book. I don’t think that I’ve ever read a middle-grade or elementary chapter book with a Korean American main character (although others exist).
Shayna confused me. Not the way she was written, but the disparity between the text and the pictures. Between her name, brown eyes, and the descriptions of her hair, I thought Shayna was African-American. In one the way the pictures back this up, as it looks like her hair might be in poofs. But she’s depicted with the same skin color as the other children, and in at least one scene, she’s described as wearing braids, then shown in poofs. I thought Shayna was a character the kids could relate to, but wished that she was a more visible and consistent minority.
Besides Clara’s family, it seems that everyone else she interacts with is white. However, within her family, she is enveloped in loving traditions and great food.
Her parents were both born in America. Her immigrant grandfather, who lives with them is learning English, so he sometimes speaks in broken sentences. He writes new words down in a notebook and learns their meaning. I was disappointed that few Korean words appeared, but mostly ok with it because of the young audience. Why didn’t he know more English if he’s been here and trying to learn it for decades? Also wondered why his family never spoke Korean to the point where Clara doesn’t know any, though she lives with her fluent grandfather.
I’m a sucker for grandparent/grandchild relationships and enjoyed reading about Clara and her grandpa, although I felt a little iffy about how she kept referring to him as magical. It seemed intended as normal hero-worship of a beloved elder, but I could see it being mistaken for real magic by young children.
There were a few times where Han worked against gender stereotypes. Male twin Max takes ballet while his sister is in tae kwon do. An obnoxious boy jokingly asks if he can join the Little Miss Apple Pie competition. Students laugh, but the teacher takes his request seriously and explains how he could join the competition.
Potential Spoiler At one point during the competition, Clara’s rival for Little Miss Apple Pie claims that she’s not American enough for the contest. Shayna instantly steps up for Clara, and her family later affirms that she is 100% American, and has every right to try out. Racial issues are explored, but aren’t the main focus. Definitely Spoiler I loved when Clara Lee wore her hanbok on the parade float. End of Spoilers
When the romance came up, I was nervous because these characters are in third grade! However it was appropriately handled, with adult characters affirming that they are way too young and discussing friendship. Clara’s family is Christian, and there are a few references to the Bible or Christian moral values, but this definitely wasn’t a preachy book.
There were a few blips, but overall I would recommend this book for 2nd to 5th grade students (could be read aloud to younger children). I hope Han writes more about Clara Lee.