Just finished Project Mulberry, which I picked up on Friday at the book fair. I am reading it in my quest to better understand how publishers define genres. I've read all about genres on the web, all the official definitions, but perhaps because my book is the opposite of "edgy" I feel it may appeal to younger readers. My book is somewhere between upper middle grade and young adult. From day one I have been calling it YA, because my protagonist is 15, but based on an agent's comment I wonder if it is more upper middle grade.
Back to the book. I liked it. This is what I think of as lower middle grade. It's just under 42,000 words. The main character deals with problems and emotions, but nothing too scary, too deep, or too dark. I read online that this book is targeted to 9-12 year-olds. Again, this delicate relationship between how books list and the age of the typical reader mystifies me. I think this book would most appeal to an 8-10 year old. It is just such a learning curve to take in all of these factors. And then you have to consider "what is the typical 10-year-old", which is an entirely different conundrum all together.
On to the book. Julia Song and her best friend Patrick are working on a club project in animal husbandry. Since they live in townhouses, keeping a typical farm animal is out. Eventually Julia's mom suggests they raise silk worms, as people do in her native Korea. Julia struggles with this because she feels it is too Korean, and she just wants to be American.
First, I love any book with a nod toward Korea, and especially any book that gives props to kimchee. My grandmother was born in Korea and lived there until she was about Julia's age (early teens). She had a lifelong adoration for kimchee. When we were members of the CSA in Charleston we got a ton of cabbage and I made kimchee. It was SOOOOOO good. My mouth is watering as I type this. I'm not growing any cabbage this year, but I bet one of our friends is at home or with the community garden. I will have to score some cabbage, stat.
What I love about this book: Korea and kimchee, but also: great information about silkworms (actually caterpillars), their life cycles, and the process of "growing" silk, without coming across as a science book/preachy/hey-kids-you're-learning-something.
It's a part of the story, and she works it in seamlessly. That's what I shoot for when I include insects in my own work. At one point Julia talks about how the different stages of the silkworm life cycle reflect her own progress about the project and it was incredibly well done (though I may not be doing it justice here). She and Patrick have to make friends with an older African American man in the neighborhood with a mulberry tree, and this makes Julia think about racism and her own Asian identity , especially as she notices how her mother interacts with this man. It explores race in a straightforward but really honest way. At the same time, again, it's not preachy or over-the-top, instead just a few thoughts here and there-- exactly what you would expect from a tween protagonist.
What I was not so crazy about with this book: in between some of the chapters the author (as herself) has a running dialog with her main character. Hated it. I am not dissing here, just one woman's opinion, but it felt indulgent. I have read on different boards, websites, etc. that some people like to do this kind of thing as a writing exercise. They may have their characters talk to each other, so that the writer "knows" the characters better. Again, nothing they would publish, just something for the writer to use as a tool to develop their character. That's not my method, but I can imagine it works for some. But why include this kind of thing in the book? It chopped up the flow of the book for me, and also just wasn't that interesting or relevant. I read it, though, because I assumed something pertinent was happening in these exchanges. Wrong.
In general, I liked the book. So much so that I ordered silkworm moths this morning from the biological supplier. Our backyard is dominated by a mulberry, and I would love to put it to use.
Anyone need approximately a mile of silk thread? I should have 10 miles by the end of the summer...