Book Review – Making Friends with Billy Wong

making-friends-with-billy-wongPoor Azalea’s summer has been ruined.  Instead of the lazy summer she anticipated next to her best friend Barbara Jean’s pool, she’s been sent to Paris Junction, Arkansas to take care of her injured grandmother.  A grandmother, by the way, that she’s never met.  Turns out her grandmother is rude and bossy, and doesn’t like Azalea’s father much.  Still Azalea manages to keep her cool, and even makes a friend, Billy, at her grandmother’s urging.

Billy Wong has just been sent to live with his great aunt and uncle so that he can attend school.  See, in 1952, Chinese Americans were just as segregated as Black Americans.  Billy wants the chance to attend a decent school, and the only way he can do so is to stay with his extended family in Arkansas.  This doesn’t make him more accepted by his peers, however.  He faces bullying and discrimination, but is determined to overcome it all and excel at school.

Told in Azalea’s prose and Billy’s poetry, Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood was an enjoyable read.  I like finding good historical fiction.  The 50s are recent enough that there isn’t too much to distinguish the characters from today’s kids, but there are enough differences to make it interesting.  I liked that the racism going on in the story isn’t something that’s typically written about—Chinese people in the Midwest in the midcentury.  It’s also a great book about boy/girl friendships that are not romantic.

And Scattergood’s characters are very well done.  Azalea is generally a good kid, but she’s just been unfairly dumped in Arkansas.  She makes a good job of an unhappy situation, makes some mistakes along the way, but tries to do what’s right.  Billy is determinedly good natured and kind, but his poetry shows his inner turmoil and unhappiness.  Even the main bully, Willis, is multilayered and his meanness has rationale (at least to an adult mind).  I think that the book offers terrific discussion material about bullying, and about what people are thinking versus what they are doing.  Why does Willis behave the way he does?  What’s he afraid of?  How do we judge people based on what we see?  Such wonderful opportunities here!

Put this book into the hands of 4th – 5th graders who like historical fiction, or people dealing with bullying.

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