________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 4 . . . . October 12, 2007

cover

Julie Black Belt. (The Kung Fu Chronicles).

Oliver Chin. Illustrated by Charlene Chua.
San Francisco, CA: Immedium (Distributed in Canada by Distican Direct, Ajax, Ontario), 2007.
36 pp., hardcover, $19.50 (US).
ISBN 978-1-59702-009-1.

Subject Headings:
Kung fu-Fiction.
Conduct of life-Fiction.

Kindergarten-grade 4 / Ages 5-9.

Review by Huai-Yang Lim.

**½ /4

Reviewed from f&g’s.

excerpt:

Twice a week Julie would go to kung fu class.

But amid the loud shouting and clapping, she couldn’t help noticing rounder kids kicking higher, smaller ones whirling faster, and the older ones punching harder.

One day, tired and sore from the twirling and tumbling, Julie sighed, “A gold belt isn’t worth all this trouble.”

Just then Sifu whispered in her ear, “A black belt is just a white belt that doesn’t quit.”

 

Julie Black Belt focuses on Julie and her interest in the martial arts. Julie idolizes the actress Brandy Wu because of her martial arts ability, and she aspires to become like her. With this goal in mind, Julie decides to take a kung fu class and thinks that getting a black belt will be easy. However, Julie realizes that practicing martial arts is more difficult than what she sees on television. She realizes that dedication and perseverance are needed in order to master the martial arts. Although Julie gets discouraged initially, her teacher motivates Julie to work on her kung fu skills. Through practice, Julie succeeds and, in the process, acquires a positive sense of self-esteem and well-being.

     Oliver Chin’s book will serve as an inspirational example to young children by emphasizing the value of hard work and determination as well as the physical and psychological rewards of learning marital arts. Furthermore, it portrays a strong female protagonist in a typically “masculine” role. Readers will sympathize with Julie and applaud her triumph in learning martial arts. With suitable language for young readers, the book achieves a good balance between description and dialogue.

     The text is in a large, easy-to-read font and is balanced effectively by the book’s vibrant and colourful illustrations. Evocative of graphic novels, the illustrations will catch readers’ attention. They portray the range of emotions that Julie and the other characters experience and also present the characters in “action shots,” which will appeal to younger readers and draw them into the story. Many of the illustrations are mid-action sequences that will give readers the impression that they are watching a movie instead of reading a book with static pictures. For example, Chua includes several illustrations of Julie and other kids who practice kung fu in and outside of class.

     One of this book’s shortcomings, however, is that the illustrations appear a bit Disneyfied. As a result, the illustrations inadvertently enforce a popularized, “pop culture” image of kung fu that parallels how the mainstream media has portrayed the martial arts in relation to Chinese or Asian culture. Often, the media has represented martial arts in ways that promote it as a spectacle for entertainment purposes.

     In terms of its overall treatment of the martial arts, this book is inspirational and tackles a topic that will attract readers of both genders, but readers need to be careful that they do not take this book as a representative portrayal of Chinese culture. Martial arts has undoubtedly been an important part of Chinese history, but representations of Chinese people in mainstream media tend to portray them in limited roles such as a cook, waiter, servant, laundromat owner, and martial arts expert. For example, the image of the Chinese person as a martial artist is reinforced by films such as the Rush Hour movie series and imported movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For teaching purposes, it may be useful for teachers to supplement this book with reading materials that depict people of Chinese descent in “non-traditional” roles.

     At one point, the book lapses into what is potentially an exoticized or stereotypical cultural expression. When Julie is practicing her drills, she tells her brother, “Watch me and learn, Young Cricket.” Such an expression evokes how Hollywood movies include a Chinese or Asian character who articulates a pithy proverb, wise saying, or stock phrase such as “young grasshopper.”

internal art

     Nevertheless, Chin does tackle his book’s topic effectively when he portrays the hard work involved in learning martial arts as well as when he questions, to a degree, exotic representations of martial arts through Julie’s perspective. The story unfolds smoothly and arrives at a satisfying conclusion, even though the ending, itself, is not wholly realistic. Besides the fact that it is a rare for someone to receive a personally autographed photo from a famous actress, it is even more unlikely that an actress would send personal regrets to Julie about her inability to attend her kung fu exam, particularly as Julie is only one of her numerous fans. In addition, the story does not explain how Brandy Wu, the actress that Julie admires, knows about her exam. Still, the book’s conclusion is in keeping with the optimistic and inspirational tone that Chin strives for.

     Keeping in mind the potential problems mentioned earlier, Chin’s book is a welcome addition to the existing body of children’s literature. In the last decade, an increasing number of children’s books have represented the life, history, or culture of Chinese people, but the body of literature written by authors of Chinese descent is still relatively small. Given the more popularized treatment of its subject matter, this book is appropriate for a public library that wishes to expand its collection of popular reading materials for younger children. In particular, the book’s visual attractiveness will likely appeal to “reluctant readers” and fans of the martial arts. Teachers could also find this book to be useful for starting discussion about how the media has represented martial arts and, more broadly, people from different cultural backgrounds.

Recommended with reservations.

Huai-Yang Lim has recently completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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