Sunday, May 29, 2016

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park

Like most best friends, seventh-graders Julia Song and Patrick like to do everything together, from homework to collecting state quarters to joining the Work-Grow-Give-Live Club, affectionately known as the Wiggle Club. The club's purpose it to teach kids about farming, and every January, members are supposed to sign up to work on farm-related a project which will then be exhibited at the State Fair in August.

A project is right up Julia and Patrick's alley, but they can't come up with a good one until Mrs. Song suggests they raise silkworms.  Raising silkworms was something Julia's grandmother had done back in Korea and which her mother had helped with as a girl.  Patrick thinks this is a wonderful idea and with his customary enthusiasm, begins to immediately do research on silkworms.  Julia, however, is a lot less happy about this as their project.

Raising silkworms is a little too Korean for Julia. Wasn't it bad enough that her house always smelled so strongly of kimchi, a Korean specialty (it's spicy, pickled Napa cabbage and delicious), a smell that had always put other kids off?  Ironically, Kimchi is also something Julia hates, but Patrick absolutely loves.  And wasn't it bad enough to be the only Korean family in town, and then be to greeted with kids at the playground yelling "Chinka-chinka-Chinaman at her when they first saw her?  But silkworms for the Wiggle project?  No way, Julia just wants an all-American project.  And she is pretty sure she can sabotage the silkworm project enough to make Patrick give it up.

But when Mr. Maxwell, leader of the Wiggle club, hears the idea for raising silkworms, he is all for it.  The one big problem, the one that might just sink the project, is that silkworms only eat mulberry leaves and no one knows anyone with a mulberry tree.  Even hanging flyers around town hadn't produced any possibilities.  But then Miss Mona at the filling station said she had a customer who told her he had a mulberry tree, but he didn't write down Julia's phone number from the flyer.

Mr. Dixon didn't need to take the phone number - he had memorized it and, sure enough, he calls.  So Patrick, Julia and Mrs. Song drive over to his house to meet Mr. Dixon and talk about the project. But when he opens his front door, Julia experiences a serious uh-oh moment - Mr. Dixon is an elderly black man, and Mrs. Song doesn't like African Americans, though Julia doesn't know why.

Julia has a lot to contend with now - the silkworm project is all systems go, and she is finally beginning to get into it; she really enjoys going over to Mr. Dixon's with Patrick and getting the mulberry leaves and even visiting for a while.  But when they stay much too long one day, Mrs. Song forbids any visiting, and insists they just get the leaves and come straight home.  So not only must Julia also contend with her mother's apparent racist feelings towards African Americans, but she must also deal with her own feeling about her Korean heritage and her identity as a Korean American. And then there's Julia's growing affection for the silkworms as they mature that causes a terrible rift between her and Patrick.  Can it all possible work out?

I really enjoyed reading Project Mulberry and I thought Julia as an excellent protagonist, even when she found things to be "bo-o-o-ring," an adolescent attitude I was not unfamiliar, with thanks to my Kiddo.  Julia is a realistic seventh grader - sometimes selfish and self-absorbed, other times generous, kind, and thoughtful, and she has a lot to deal with in this coming of age novel.  Julia's identity issues are hard enough but dealing with the possibility that her mother might just be racist certainly adds to the difficulty. And yet, it also helps Julia look at her own attitudes about who she really is in a new light.

And then there is the moral dilemma Julia faces when she learns how silk is gotten from the silkworms.  A difficult decision must be made by Julia and Patrick, one that could destroy their whole project and even the best of friendships.

Along the way, the reader, along with Julia and Patrick, learns quite a bit about conservation and how a sustainable farm works, something I actually enjoyed reading about in the novel, especially since it was done so naturally and not like it was just tossed in as a plot device.  In fact, it inspires Julia and Patrick to try and make their silkworm project sustainable.

OK, I loved Project Mulberry, but themes of identity, friendship, racism, and conservation aside, there is one aspect of the novel that I really did not like.  In between chapters is a conversation between the author and Julia about the plot and where things are going in the novel.  Maybe it is there to show how a novel is constructed and written, as some people seem to think, but I found it just an annoyance.  After reading the first few, I started to just skip them so that I could read the novel with a sense of continuity without interruption.

Project Mulberry is a excellent, thoroughly satisfying novel that covers a lot of themes and, to its credit, doesn't necessarily spare the reader or Julia some harsh realities of life.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


1 comment:

  1. What a lovely review! This sounds like a wonderful book. Thanks for sharing with the #diversekidlit link-up!


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