Azalea is a shy girl and dreads talking to strangers, and, of course, Paris Junction is full of strangers. No sooner does Azalea arrive, then she notices a boy in one of the trees in her grandmother's enormous garden. Grandma Clark tells her it's Billy Wong, a Chinese American boy who is staying with his great aunt and uncle, longtime Paris Junction residents and owners of the Lucky Seven grocery. But when her grandmother encourages Azalea to make friends with Billy, she hesitates - she's never met a Chinese person before, and can't imagine how they could understand each other if one speaks Chinese and one speaks English.
It turns out that Billy Wong has no trouble with the English language given that his family has lived in Arkansas for generations. Billy is staying in Paris Junction so that he can attend a better school than the school across the river where is parents live. And Billy is one of three kids besides Azalea who come to help out in Grandmother Clark's garden. Besides him, there is the prissy Melinda Bowman and the town bully and troublemaker Willis DeLoach.
Before she knows it, Azalea is speaking more and more to strangers, and becoming friends with Billy Wong, hanging out and riding their bikes around Paris Junction. Which is how they discover Willis DeLoach's secret. Willis, whose mother is in the hospital, is home alone in at trailer in a pecan grove, taking care of his little sister.
And Willis DeLoach hates Billy Wong. He's already in trouble at the Lucky Seven grocery, and continues to steal bubble gum from them whenever he can. Shortly after discovering Willis and his sister at the trailer, the Lucky Seven is vandalized and everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that it is the work of Willis. Everyone, except Azalea, who actually knows where Willis was the night of the vandalism.
Though the vandalism of the Lucky Seven stands at the center of this novel, there is a lot going on for Azalea. For one thing, her first night at Grandma Clark's she broke what appeared to the an old, maybe valuable plate and is afraid to tell her grandmother. And what happened between her grandmother and her parents that caused the estrangement between them, so that Azalea was never able to get to know her grandmother, or her now deceased grandfather, before. And finally, what is inside the locked shed in Grandmother Clark's garden, the one she forbade Azalea from going into, and yet why is there light coming from it at night, even when her grandmother is home, snoring in her bed?
Making Friends with Billy Wong is my favorite kind of middle grade novel. I picked it up and couldn't put it down. The story is told mainly from Azalea's first person point of view, an outsider to Paris Junction and someone who can record what she sees with more clarity than perhaps its residents. Interspersed are Billy's first person thoughts, written in poetry or in the style of a journalist (he wants to join the school newspaper), in which he writes about his hopes for his new school and his life, and about dealing with the racial prejudice he experiences on a daily basis in this 1952 segregated south.
I've always liked the way Augusta Scattergood handles her characters, regardless of the role they play in one of her novels. She treats them with respect and in return, they reveal themselves calmly, naturally and unselfconsciously, yet they are not without flaws, The same can be said about her southern settings, a setting in which she is very much at home.
And I really loved that Scattergood gave us a grandmother turned out to be different from the usual array of unknown grandmothers. Grandma Clark welcomes Azalea, treats her with nothing but kindness and turns out to be a pretty unique person in her own right. She's fair and open-minded, so why did Azalea's parents want to get away from her as quickly as possible, and refuse to let her get to know her grandchild for so long? The answer may surprise you, it did Azalea.
I can honestly say I enjoyed reading Making Friends with Billy Wong every bit as much as I enjoyed reading Scattergood's previous two historical fiction works - Glory Be and The Way to Stay in Destiny (my reviews). Like them, this is also a wonderfully well-written, very well researched story about family, friendship, bullies, hate, overcoming personal challenges and learning to not jump to conclusions.
Be sure to read Scattergood's Author's Note to learn more about the little known, but large Chinese population in the south in the 1950s and 1960s and what inspired this novel. You might also enjoy hearing what Augusta Scattergood has to say about writing Making Friends with Billy Wong.
This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the author