When I saw these two books side-by-side on the shelves in the middle-grade section, I just couldn’t resist! Two fantasies based in Asian legend and featuring fierce girls wielding sticks, is either a wonderful coincidence or a new trend.
The Dragon Warrior, by Katie Zhao, is about a Chinese-American girl (Falun Liu, aka Faryn) and her brother (Ah Li, aka Alex). They live in San Francisco’s Chinatown, within an enclave called the Jade Society, a secret group of warriors who fight demons. They have been raised by their grandfather (Ye Ye) because their mother is dead and their warrior father is missing. Ye Ye and his charges are often ridiculed for being too traditional, because no one believes that there are demons any more. Except, of course, there are, and Falun will have to fight Gods and demons from Chinese myths based on the legend of the Journey to the West.
The Girl Giant and the Monkey King, by Van Hoang, also draws from the Journey to the West, which is where the legendary Monkey King originated. The Girl Giant is a Vietnamese-American girl (Thom Ngho, aka No) who lives with her tiger-mom mother in a small midwestern town. Her father is unknown. She’s really, really strong, and thinks that this, in addition to being too Asian, is the reason why she’s an outcast at school. She will venture into the Heavens, led by the mischievous Monkey King, in search of his legendary staff and her own identity.
The books both feature realistic middle school heroes, though The Girl Giant and the Monkey King deals with slightly more mature themes. Both girls receive a reasonable amount of help and misdirection from the adults in their lives, and must sort out which is which in order to succeed. But The Dragon Hero is a fairly typical kid-hero’s journey, with Falun finding her courage and learning who to protect. She will be accepted after she becomes a hero. In The Girl Giant and the Monkey King, Falun must learn how to handle her strength while she decides who to trust. She also must realize that the first step to fitting in is to recognize that you’re really OK.
Both books have a fair number of cultural references, with numerous uses of Chinese or Vietnamese words, particularly for foods, as well as casual mentions of some of the problems that come from being an immigrant. (My favorite Vietnamese word is “cu’ng,” an endearment used frequently by Thom’s mother, which needlessly embarrasses her.) And both books, while leading to satisfactory conclusions, promise to be the first book in a series.