Di Di is leaving to spend a year in China with his grandparents and extended family, but Sharon and middle sister Mary aren’t so sure about that. A year is a long time, and they miss him at first, but then get busy with their own lives. When Di Di returns, it is a difficult adjustment for everyone.
I actually was familiar with this idea through friends of mine, who lived in their family’s country of origin from the time they were weaned until preschool and then flew back each year to live there over the summer. However, for many readers it will be new. This topic is also briefly explored from a different perspective in American Panda. In that book, the father decided to send the children to his family in China against their mother’s wishes, and it was challenging for the family.
The chapters in this are short, but challenging enough for this to be beyond early reader status. There are illustrations every other chapter or so. Some are full page while others are smaller. The illustrations are very similar to the cover, although they are line drawings and not in color. The chapters are quite short with most only a few pages.
This book, as you might guess from the title, covers just a little over one year in the life of one family. It is told in the first person from the oldest daughter Sharon’s viewpoint. Her sister Mary (in first grade) is another major character. Also present are her parents, grandmother, little brother Di Di, and her best friend Isabella.
Many emotions are quietly explored as first the girls find Di Di irritating, then they miss him, eventually grow accustomed to life without him, and finally struggle when he returns. Sharon initially lies to her friend about where Di Di is, and when she eventually learns the truth, Isabella is judgmental about the choice. But the girls defend their family’s decision, even though Sharon herself questions it privately when he returns. After he throws a tantrum over the family members he is missing, she calls her parents out:
“You and Mama said that China is better for little kids. But Di Di didn’t learn not to break things.” p. 58
Her architect father calmly responds with an explanation about child development and why they made that choice. Sharon’s mother was returning to work, and it’s important to them that all their children learn Chinese and know their Chinese relatives. They felt it was better for him to stay with family than a babysitter all day, and he was too young to stay in their apartment after school with a babysitter looking in as the school-age girls have been doing this year.
The end of the book has a Glossary, although almost all of the Chinese words are also defined in the text or obvious from context. There is also a perfect Author’s Note which explains this tradition for children or adults who might not be familiar with it. Sharon’s family made a very difficult choice that they felt would be best for their son long-term. This is not common to all Chinese-American or all immigrant families, as the illustrator points out in her biographical note:
“Wong was drawn to the story in Only One Year because it presents a Chinese American experience that is different from her own.”
This is a gentle but valuable book. It exposes students to a different family choice without judgement, introduces a handful of Chinese words and a few cultural aspects. Due to the brevity and age of the characters, most middle school students wouldn’t be interested, but this could be used with a high-reading kindergartner all the way up to fifth grade. The only caveat is that very sensitive students may be emotionally affected by the separation or question if they or their siblings will be sent away. An empathetic conversation should dispel those concerns.