I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Jane Kuo‘s upcoming middle-grade novel In the Beautiful Country (IBC). While I totally trust my recommenders at The Wandering Jellyfish, this book–it’s a novel in verse and I just haven’t read a lot of middle-grade as of late–was so far out of my comfort zone that I was honestly a little anxious.
Crisis averted though, y’all, because I was SO pleasantly surprised about it!
(Real quick, here’s a link to my vlog as well!)
The first thing that surprised me is that this is a novel in verse, so it’s a collection of little poem vignettes and honestly, I really enjoyed this format. Before I get further into it, I’d say that IBC is a fairly emotional, evocative story, and I don’t know about y’all, but for me, poetry “hits different,” as the kids say. There’s something about it that just heightens all of the feels in such a way that even if you can’t relate to what the poet is referring to, somehow they make you feel almost exactly what they do.
So when I read about little Ai Shi (aka Anna) being worried about her parent’s store, or angry at the kids who bully her family, or guilty about being mean to the other new girl, I FELT IT. It’s pretty clear from the writing alone that Kuo wrote from the heart–on her author’s site, there are actual photos and blurbs that say as much, explaining that the book was inspired about her own story of coming to “the beautiful country.” She just so expertly captured the mixture of feelings that any kid has after moving to a new place, but she also highlighted how those feelings might be increased, how the stakes might seem higher when the new place is a new country, a new culture.
I wanted so badly to just hug little Anna and be her friend. At the same time, had I actually been in that situation, I wonder if I would as a ten-year-old. I think that’s something else that’s beautiful about this story is that it encourages self-reflextion. It makes us think about our relationships to others in the sense that we all hope (I should think) that we’d be Terry and not Nick, but what if we’re actually Anna herself? The emotional appeal alone of this book is a huge recommender for it and for that reason, I think it’s well worth reading.
I also really appreciated the, somewhat limited, character development we see from Anna. Something I found unique is that she actually starts off as a seemingly confident child–her best friend/cousin actually tells her to shut up because she’s tired of Anna “bragging” about her move–but when the move actually happens, she’s shy, and she’s aware of that. She’s shy and she so badly wants friends but it’s hard because kids are mean. To top it off, she’s anxious because of her family (small spoiler, the shop/restaurant doesn’t exactly pan out the way they expected), and you see Anna shrink. But with time, encouragement, and self-reflection, you see her grow again. Self awareness in characters is something I LOVE, and that made the story again, that much more enjoyable.
To go back briefly to the format of the book, it’s broken up in a number of sections, chronicling Anna’s literal and emotional journey. This, to me, was very intuitive and well done, it also gave context to the poems/vignettes and framed them really nicely. On the note of the poems/vignettes themselves, they were all fairly short, making the book a quick, enjoyable read.
I definitely recommend this book to readers who are curious about novels in verse and to those who are interested in getting an emotional, personal look at “the immigrant experience.” I think these sorts of stories are often told from a more mature perspective, to see it through a child’s eyes was a unique insight.
If bullying is particularly triggering for you, heads up–there are some slurs, kids saying mean rhymes/slanting their eyes, and vandalism–that said, it could be inspiring to see the character work through these conflicts and find inner confidence. So, I wouldn’t say avoid it at all costs if you’re sensitive to bullying, just be aware and be mindful if you do decide to read this book.
In the Beautiful Country is set to be released in June 2022, so I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek!
That’s all I’ve got for now. Next week I’m diving into my TBR pile and have emerged with Kirsty Manning‘s The French Gift.