Over the last several years, young adult readers have been able to enjoy more books set in Asia, from K-Pop stories to Taiwan summer camp tales to novels about American teens who are sent to live with relatives for language and culture immersion. But the choices for younger readers, namely those not yet in high school, are still limited. Authors like Grace Lin and Lenore Look have written middle grade novels in which characters spend summers in Asia, but Christina Matula has created a series of novels for preteens set completely in Asia that does not center around American kids. Her first book in the series, The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei, introduces the eponymous character and her new life in Asia after her mother takes a job in Hong Kong. This book tackles the issues of being a new kid at school, adjusting to a new culture, and missing her Taiwanese grandma back in Canada.
The second book in the Holly-Mei series has just been published and in The Not-So-Perfect Plan, Holly-Mei has adjusted well to life in Hong Kong, yet after a recent school break she feels left out hearing about her classmates’ trips around Asia while she stayed home due to her mother’s busy work schedule. She starts to feel competitive with her friends and sister to find a better sense of belonging. Although the story is a cautionary tale that unhealthy competition can become harmful, it stands out because Matula seamlessly weaves it in with the appealing—and unusual—backdrop of Hong Kong.
We cross several streets and zigzag westward until we hit the outdoor market, marked by green stalls overflowing with plants and flowers, vegetables and fruit. An elderly lady with hair pulled back in a tight gray bun motions us over to her stall, saying “Siuje, siuje,” miss, miss, and she offers us samples of a fruit already peeled and cut. I pop a juicy translucent piece into my mouth. It tastes a bit like a super sweet grape and it brings back memories of Ah-ma.
Holly-Mei is a rising field hockey star on her school team, but her teammate Saskia is so good that she’s offered a spot on the upper grades team. As much as Saskia tries to downplay her agility on the field so she doesn’t come across as a showoff, Holly-Mei feels the need to prove her own worth as an athlete. When another classmate tells her of an inter-school triathlon-type of competition, Holly-Mei puts together a team and hopes to prove to herself—and to her peers—that she, too, can be a star athlete.
The competition includes swimming and running, but the main event is an eight-member team “Dragon Dash” around the city, checking in at different cultural spots that are discovered only by solving clues at each stop along the way. Holly-Mei, determined to win all of the events, tries to coach her team of classmates in Hong Kong lore so they will be as prepared for the Dragon Dash as possible. But they view the competition differently; for them it’s just fun. Holly-Mei, for all of her preparation, freezes at one riddle—Man oh Man, I wish to do well on my Lit exam—until one of her teammates mentions she visits a temple to wish for success before a big exam. The answer turns out to be Man Mo Temple.
… we are facing an old temple dating back to the 1800s, its single story dwarfed by the high-rises built around it. The cylindrical green roof tiles look like they are made of jade coins and there are intricately carved dragons, flowers, and miniature people all along the ridge. We step inside the front gate, which is flanked by two pillars and some railings carved to look like bamboo, and into the courtyard of the temple.
Because it’s a kids book, the story ends on a happy note and with a good lesson about sportsmanship and friendship. Holly-Mei learns to appreciate the enjoyment in sports and other competitions and finds acceptance when she starts to feel more self-confident. There’s one more book planned in the Holly-Mei series and it’s sure to bring more of Hong Kong to young readers who may not otherwise know about the city.