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Editorial Reviews

In this touching and insightful debut novel from Jean Kwok, 11-year-old Kimberly Chang makes us proud to call her a fellow American. Grace Wey’s narration effortlessly carries the abrupt “scene changes” that are a natural part of the life of an immigrant child. Wey takes us from the grassy prep school where Kimberly spends her days to the loud, hot factory where she works every evening with her mother — fabric fibers sticking to her sweaty body, hours of homework ahead of her.

When Kimberly is in Chinatown, Kwok translates for us — but loosely enough to retain the vivid metaphors of the original language. When Matt, another Chinese boy who works at the factory, invites Kimberly and her mother for an outing to see the “Liberty Goddess”, Mrs. Chang says, “Now I wouldn’t want to be a lightbulb.” Kimberly explains, “Her joke, that she would be there as a chaperone — stopping the lovers from kissing because of her presence, like a lightbulb in a darkened room — made public my private hope: that Matt’s invitation might actually be a date.” The metaphor itself is so descriptive, and the fact that Kimberly has to translate even for us as listeners reminds us that this young woman gracefully leads a double life.

Much like Chinese characters, where the white space in between the brush strokes holds as much meaning as the bold, black lines, Wey’s precise delivery leaves room for Kimberly’s often unspoken, but deeply felt emotions. Kwok and Wey take us on a ride with Kimberly on Matt’s bike — we can feel the wind on her face and Matt’s strong back against her chest. But just as abruptly as we shift from Kimberly’s “white” world to her “Chinese” world, Wey’s voice betrays the tragic sound of Kimberly’s heart shutting off. Too much is at stake.

Girl in Translation is a stunning debut novel that will inspire respect and admiration for families who come to this country to start new lives — especially children. The first line of Kwok’s debut novel is meant to describe our heroine. “I was born with a talent.” But this line just as aptly describes the author who also came to this country as a child. Girl in Translation shows the promise of our great country — and just what many are willing to give up for it…even true love. —Sarah Evans Hogeboom

Publisher's Summary

Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, an inspiring debut about an immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life--like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition--Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant--a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

©2010 Jean Kwok (P)2010 Penguin

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  • Overall
  • Vickie
  • springfield, VA, USA
  • 07-13-10


An amazing read!!! The author draws us into the heartaches and triumphs of a Chinese American girl growing up in America. Through her life we learn much about the Chinese culture and get a peek into what it is like to grow up in this land. The narration is wonderful and you can almost see the young girl in your mind's eye. The characters are well developed and very believeable. I will probably read this again I enjoyed it so much. Worth listening to. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read(listen)!!!

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall


This is a beautifully written book with compelling characters. Language plays a central role in this book, and left me with a renewed appreciation for how the constraints of one's language affects one's sense of self. The narration is also among the best I've heard. Highly recommended.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Careful Parents

I seldom write reviews and instead let my stars do the talking. However, I must place conditions on my rating. This book is seen through a young Chinese American's eyes and at the beginning appears appropriate for younger readers. This book contains a passionate, impulsive, premarital teen sexual encounter resulting in an unexpected preganancy and a decision about abortion. There is casual necking, petting, lying to parent and a choice by the heroine to use drugs. Although, as an adult I really liked this book and it's thoughtful treatment on many issues... I would certainly not want a younger teen to stumble into this and I would certainly want to discuss with an older teen.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

This is a keeper

I have never written a review before although I have listened to audiobooks for years. "Girl in Translation" should come with a warning - "Do not expect to get anything done once you start this book!" The reader was wonderful and I hope to hear more of her work. A reader can, of course, only be as good as the book and hopefully Jean Kwok will follow this with another of the same quality. My only disappointment was when I heard "12 years later" and realized there was only 33 minutes left in the book. This book is a great read!

20 of 22 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Ella
  • toronto,, Ontario, Canada
  • 09-03-10

Hope, Dreams and Determination

What a wonderful book. The story of Kimberly, a sixth grader and her Ma emigrating from Hong Kong to Brooklyn. Under the sponsorship and guise of her “well-meaning” Aunt Paula, Kimberly and her mother think they are being looked after. Instead they are used as slave/child labour in her sweatshop making pennies a day and living in Aunt Paula’s heatless, roach and rat-infested apartment slated for demolition. Kimberly goes to school all day and works all evening to help pay back their debt to Aunt Paula, to pay rent, to pay for food. But Kimberly has a gift. Besides being brilliant, she has spunk, guts, and the ability to keep things in perspective. She is a wonderful character, full of pride and heart. Kwok effectively used many Chinese idioms throughout the book that were interesting, thought provoking and gave the reader a glimpse into Chinese culture. This coming of age story takes Kimberly from a caterpillar slug and follows her journey till she emerges as a butterfly. She makes many hard choices along the way and there are questions in the reader’s mind whether those choices were right or wrong, but they are made methodically and with justification, at least in Kimberly’s mind. She thinks with her head and not her heart. Is that the one fault that rules her life? That’s up to the reader to decide.
If there is anything negative I have to say about the book, it is that it was too short. Kwok had an opportunity to uncover so many more layers and I would have eaten them up. I certainly hope she comes out with a sequel and soon.
The narrator was superb and added much personality to this book.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Annie
  • Alameda, CA, United States
  • 07-02-10

Love the story, but not so much the narrator

Half way through the book and I'm very much enjoying the story. Jean Kwok is a vivid and descriptive story teller. Kudos to her. Can't wait to start commuting each day just to listen the story.

The narrator on the other hand...when she reads in plain English, she's terrific. But I simply cannot stand, nor understand, when she voices the characters in accents. Horrendous. The Chinese accents are monotone, robotic, broken and unauthentic. The non-Chinese characters seem to have unidentifiable accents too; not sure what kind of accents they are and why they mispronounce words. Unfortunately, the accents can be quite distracting, leaving the listener a bit confused. Without the accents, reader is great.

Looking forward to finishing the story.

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Grabbed Me

Halfway through this book, I would have given it two stars. But as it continued, I liked the people and the love story. Vey thought provoking and well written.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Good here and there, not so good there and here

The book is all-in-all good, but when the author bombs the romantic scenes using corny language. I can almost see her editor suggesting how to "spice up" those scenes with phrases straight out of cheap paperbacks.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Performance
  • Story
  • Stephanie
  • Beautiful Groveland, MA, United States
  • 08-05-15

Absorbing and honest look at the life of an immigrant

Great story that was so honest it has to be part memoir, and indeed when I looked up Kwok's website, it does closely mirror that of her own. It does come off a bit trite at times, but I appreciated the peek into a life that many of us might never understand. Fascinating. The narrator was ok, a little weak at times, and I do think parts of the story are improved with a Chinese immigrant accent.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • C. Byrnes
  • Kissimmee, FL United States
  • 06-06-10


Enjoyed every second. Recommended for full price!

8 of 11 people found this review helpful