Cordelia comes from a long line of magical milliners, who weave alchemy and enchantment into every hat. In Cordelia’s world, Making – crafting items such as hats, cloaks, watches, boots and gloves from magical ingredients – is a rare and ancient skill, and only a few special Maker families remain.
When Cordelia’s father Prospero and his ship, the Jolly Bonnet, are lost at sea during a mission to collect hat ingredients, Cordelia is determined to find him. But Uncle Tiberius and Aunt Ariadne have no time to help the littlest Hatmaker, for an ancient rivalry between the Maker families is threatening to surface. Worse, someone seems to be using Maker magic to start a war.
It’s up to Cordelia to find out who, and why . . .
Featuring illustrations by Paola Escobar.
My Thoughts after Reading
Set in the backdrop of Mad King George, this middle-grade book is a tale about royal makers, who use magical items in their creations to bring out the purpose of the wearer. In this story, the Hatmakers have been commissioned to make a Peace Hat, for the peace talks with France.
Our heroine receives news of her father being lost at sea, searching for a rare ingredient for the Peace Hat. Her uncle and aunt take her in, but refuse to pass on the hat-making skills to her, citing her age as an excuse. However Cordelia is not content to wait.
My favourite character has to be the actor Sir Hugo. He is full of personality, even if part of the reason was wearing an acting hat that Cordelia had cobbled together without her aunt’s permission. A very fun read. If you enjoyed The Unadoptables and The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, this book gives the same vibes. 3/5*
Opening Line : It was a wild and lightning-struck night.
I am a dark spirit, the ghost announced grandly. I am your inheritance, your grandmother’s legacy. I am yours to command.
Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her ghostly companion Pink, and the two quickly become inseparable.
But Suraya doesn’t know that pelesits have a dark side—and when Pink’s shadows threaten to consume them both, they must find enough light to survive . . . before they are both lost to the darkness.
My Thoughts after Reading
This middle-grade book is about a spirit who decides to make an unloved girl his master.
Our protagonist has just lost his master. He chose this little neglected girl but unlike any wicked pelesits, he cares for her and uses his wicked ways surreptitiously to avenge her tormentors. When she finds out, she banishes him from her life.
The author’s style is a quite unique. Parts of it feel it is written for a western audience, yet other parts have a lovely local feel to it. As I come from Singapore, the next door neighbour to Malaysia, I recognised the local references, like ‘open coffee shop’, as well as the local foods.
If you are looking for a unique paranormal book for a Halloween read, I recommend this one. 3.5*
When Art’s mother is accused of witchcraft, she is determined to get her back – at any cost. A lyrical adventure with folklore at its heart, for fans of THE HOUSE WITH CHICKEN LEGS.
Twelve-year-old Art lives in a small village in Scotland. Her mother has always made potions that cure the sick, but now the townspeople say she is a witch.
One cloudless night, Art’s mother is accused of Witchcraft, arrested, and taken from Scotland to England. Art mounts her horse, taking a sword, a tightrope, and a herbal recipe book, and begins a journey through wild forests to find her mother before summer solstice, using nature’s signs and symbols to guide her.
On her journey, Art will discover what sacrifices she will need to make to be reunited with her mother – and to alter the fate of women everywhere. But will she reach her, before it’s too late?
My Thoughts after Reading
This young middle-grade book is set in the 17th during the time where women were hunted down as witches.
Our Scottish heroine has been rejected by her townsfolk ever since her mother being taken away as a witch, all because her mother knew the medicinal properties of plants. She runs away and journeys down south to Essex, where her mother was to be tried and killed. Along the way she encounters animals and omens, and makes friends with other children in the same plight.
I particularly l enjoyed reading about the healing properties of various plants. My one wish would be images of the plants. I was very glad that, in the acknowledgements, the author had included the references where she got her research from.
This book will appeal to a younger middle-grade audience for its simple plot.
ELLIE spent the summer before seventh grade getting dropped by her best friend since forever. JACK spent it training in “The Cage” with his tough-as-nails brothers and hard-to-please dad. By the time middle school starts, they’re both ready for a change. And just as Jack’s thinking girls have it so easy, Ellie’s wishing she could be anyone but herself.
Then, BAM! They swap lives – and bodies!
Now Jack’s fending off mean girls at sleepover parties, while Ellie’s reigning as The Prince of Thatcher Middle School.
As their crazy weekend races on – and their feeling for each other grow – Elli and Jack begin to wonder if maybe the best way to learn how to be yourself is to spend a little time being somebody else.
My Thoughts after Reading
This middle-grade book is about the souls of a boy and a girl swapping into the bodies of the other.
One Friday afternoon during the last lesson, Elle and Jack happen to be in the nurse’s office at the same time. The next minute they find themselves in each other’s bodies. They have less than ten minutes to come to terms with the swap and agree to meet up on Monday morning to find that missing nurse-on-duty. In the meantime, they have to lead each other’s live for the weekend. Both agreed to lock themselves in their rooms all weekend. Except it was a lot harder to do that.
This book is written in alternate POVs. Elle has friendship issues with the mean girls at school. Jack trains hard at hockey with his four brothers. If you can look past the gender-stereotyped characters, the rest of the book is good fun. I enjoyed how the ‘typically’ male or female lingo flew over the heads of each other and how they had to guess their way through, making hilarious and embarrassing mistakes along the way. Because they live in such opposite worlds, they experience a whole universe and see a new perspective in life.
I would recommend this book, with a warning sign to the intended target audience about gender-stereotypes in the story. 4/5
I was the boy with a plan. Now I am the boy with nothing.
From the moment 12-year-old Kylan hatches a plan to escape from his Norse captors, and return to Scotland to find his mother, his life becomes a dangerous game. The precious Lewis Chessmen pieces—which he helped carve—hold the key to his freedom, but he will need all his courage and wit to triumph against Sven Asleifsson, the cruellest Viking in the realm. One false move could cost him his life.
Barbara Henderson has woven a thrilling origin story around the enduring mystery of the Lewis Chessmen, their creation in Norway, and how they ended up buried in the Hebrides before being discovered on Lewis in 1831.
My Thoughts after Reading
This story is perfectly pitched for middle-grade.
Our protagonist is a slave boy determined to return to his roots and find his mother. His ability to speak Gaelic and carve ivory into chess pieces convinces a prominent man to take him away from Norway on this journey to Scotland.
This books has Vikings, pirates and sea adventures. It also has plenty of heart: a young slave separated from his mother, seeking his freedom.
I love it that this story was inspired by the famous 12th century Lewis chess pieces found on a Scottish beach. A must read for chess and history lovers. 4/5
If you are looking for middle-grade books with a chess theme, also check out Check Mates.
The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.
My Thoughts after Reading
Set in Mexico, this YA book interweaves their myths and legends with contemporary life in the 1920s.
Our heroine is the Cinderella equivalent in her family home. Her widowed mother struggled to make ends meet after her father died and came crawling back to her haughty family. Casiopea is her grandfather’s carer. She has to put up with his bad-temper and her golden-boy cousin’s taunts. The only thing that keeps her going is his promise of inheritance after his passing.
One day her defiance gets her into trouble and she is left behind in a family excursion. She finds the key that her grandfather usually hangs round his neck and opens the mysterious box in her room. Her adventure begins.
In similar vein to Rick Riordan‘s Percy Jackson and Greek mythology, this story is imbued with Mayan gods and beliefs. The detailed description of places took me to the heart of Mexico. I enjoyed getting to know the two main characters and their development as the book progressed.
If you are looking for a book set in South America, check out this one. 3/5
This gripping account of London’s Great Fire of 1666 is a worthy companion to At the Sign of the Sugared Plum. Only one year after the city suffered such terrible losses during the Plague, London is recovering and Hannah convinces her parents that, with her younger sister Anne’s help, she can return to the city and manage the sweetmeats shop on her own. The girls are thrilled to be back in London, and Hannah even finds her old beau, Tom, alive and well and working for a magician. But her newfound happiness is short-lived as fires begin to spring up around the city and quickly move closer to their shop. Finally, Hannah and Anne are forced to abandon their home to save their lives. When the fires have abated, the girls return to find their shop in ruins. They also find Tom, beaten and injured after being chased by a mob that blamed the magician for starting the fire. Despite their losses, Hannah is sure that one day she will rebuild her shop and once again trade under the sign of the sugared plum.
My Thoughts after Reading
This young YA book is set in the mid-1660s. It is a direct continuation from Book 1, At the Sign of the Sugared Plum. For continuity, I recommend readers to read this straight after you have read the first book. The book blurb suggests the story is about the Great Fire of 1666, but the start of the story ties up the ends of the previous book.
In our last book the heroines have escaped the clutches of London’s plague. They journey to Dorchester to deliver the baby orphan girl To her aristocrat aunt. Eventually Hannah makes the decision to return to London without her older sister, but takes her younger sister along instead. Hence at the fresh start in London it was reminiscent of the first book, except this time round Hannah is the teacher.
The book give a good insight into the lives in London as they emerge from the depths of the Great Plague. When the fire came, the author has skilfully brought the reader right into the midst of the trauma and mayhem. You feel as if you were there when it happened, and the great loss afterwards.
It’s World Refugee Week on 14-20 June 2021, taking place all around the world to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June 2021. This day is marked by the UN Assembly to raise global awareness of refugee status, and our global responsibilities. If you are looking for books to bring to your classroom on this topic, here are some suggestions, in alphabetical order. Some are about the journey, some about settling in and others are about being part of the community in their new lives.
Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention center after his mother and sister fled the violence of a distant homeland, Subhi has only ever known life behind the fences. But his world is far bigger than that—every night, the magical Night Sea from his mother’s stories brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories. And as he grows, his imagination threatens to burst beyond the limits of his containment. The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie—a scruffy, impatient girl who appears on the other side of the wire fence and brings with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it herself, she relies on Subhi to unravel her family’s love songs and tragedies. Subhi and Jimmie might both find comfort—and maybe even freedom—as their tales unfold. But not until each has been braver than ever before.
An impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force from a treasured storyteller!
Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.
Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.
Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, Echo pushes the boundaries of genre, form, and storytelling innovation to create a wholly original novel that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck. My review
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.
Reema runs to remember the life she left behind in Syria. Caylin runs to find what she’s lost. Under the grey Glasgow skies, twelve-year-old refugee Reema is struggling to find her place in a new country, with a new language and without her brother. But she isn’t the only one feeling lost. Her Glasgwegian neighbour Caylin is lonely and lashing out. When they discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, the girls form a wary friendship. And they are more alike than they could have imagined: they both love to run. As Reema and Caylin learn to believe again, in themselves and in others, they find friendship, freedom and the discovery that home isn’t a place, it’s the people you love. Heartfelt and full of hope, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle is an uplifting story about the power of friendship and belonging. Inspired by her work with young asylum seekers, debut novelist Victoria Williamson’s stunning story of displacement and discovery will speak to anyone who has ever asked ‘where do I belong?’
*the author has pledged to give 20% of her royalties to a charity for these refugees.
A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about a girl in Sudan in 2008 and a boy in Sudan in 1985. The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay. Enduring every hardship from loneliness to attack by armed rebels to contact with killer lions and crocodiles, Salva is a survivor, and his story goes on to intersect with Nya’s in an astonishing and moving way.
Ever since Lexie’s mum vanished, her world hasn’t stopped spinning. A new home, a new school – even a new family but Lexie never gives up hope that her mum will come back and writes her letters every day to tell her all about her new life.
There’s plenty to tell – the new group of misfits she calls friends, the talent for music she never knew she had and the gorgeous boy with blue eyes and secrets to hide. But her letters remain unanswered and she’s starting to feel more alone than ever.
Lexie’s about to learn that sometimes you need to get lost in order to be found.
The first in a gorgeous new series from the bestselling author of the Chocolate Box Girls and the perfect next step for fans of Jacqueline Wilson.
It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.
Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.
Aisha is a thirteen-year-old refugee living in London. Happy for the first time since leaving her war-torn home, she is devastated when her foster mother announces that a new family has been found for her and she will be moving on. Feeling rejected and abandoned, Aisha packs her bags and runs away, seeking shelter in the nearby woods.
Meanwhile, a few doors down, twelve-year-old Zak is trying to cope with his parents’ divorce. Living in a near-building site while the new house is being refurbished, he feels unsettled and alone. Discovering a piece of rubble with the original builder’s signature set into it, he starts researching the history behind his home – and in doing so finds a connection with a young soldier from the past, which leads him to an old air-raid shelter in the same woods.
Both children, previously unknown to each other, meet in the heart of the ancient city woodland as they come into the orbit of Elder, a strange homeless woman who lives amongst the trees – and, as helicopters hover overhead and newspapers fill with pictures of the two lost children, unexpected bonds are formed and lives changed forever . . .
Join 12-year-old Tash and her best friend Sam in a story of adventure, survival and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India. Filled with friendship, love and courage, this young girl’s thrilling journey to save her parents is an ideal read for children aged 9-12.
There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them. ‘Dalai Lama.’
Tash has to follow many rules to survive in Tibet, a country occupied by Chinese soldiers. But when a man sets himself on fire in protest and soldiers seize Tash’s parents, she and her best friend Sam must break the rules. They are determined to escape Tibet – and seek the help of the Dalai Lama himself in India.
And so, with a backpack of Tash’s father’s mysterious papers and two trusty yaks by their side, their extraordinary journey across the mountains begins.
Goodreads Blurb An eleven-year-old’s world is upended by political turmoil in this “lyrically ambitious tale of exile and reunification” (Kirkus Reviews) from an award-winning poet, based on true events in Chile.
Celeste Marconi is a dreamer. She lives peacefully among friends and neighbors and family in the idyllic town of Valparaiso, Chile—until one day when warships are spotted in the harbor and schoolmates start disappearing from class without a word. Celeste doesn’t quite know what is happening, but one thing is clear: no one is safe, not anymore.
The country has been taken over by a government that declares artists, protestors, and anyone who helps the needy to be considered “subversive” and dangerous to Chile’s future. So Celeste’s parents—her educated, generous, kind parents—must go into hiding before they, too, “disappear.” Before they do, however, they send Celeste to America to protect her.
As Celeste adapts to her new life in Maine, she never stops dreaming of Chile. But even after democracy is restored to her home country, questions remain: Will her parents reemerge from hiding? Will she ever be truly safe again?
Accented with interior artwork, steeped in the history of Pinochet’s catastrophic takeover of Chile, and based on many true events, this multicultural ode to the power of revolution, words, and love is both indelibly brave and heart-wrenchingly graceful.
JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . . ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . . MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . . All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end. My review
BOY, EVERYWHERE is the debut middle grade novel from writer A. M. Dassu. It chronicles the harrowing journey taken from Syria to the UK by Sami and his family. From privilege to poverty, across countries and continents, from a smuggler’s den in Turkey to a prison in Manchester, it is a story of survival, of family, of bravery.
Sami is a typical 13 year-old: he loves his friends, football, PlayStation and iPad. But a bombing in a mall changes his life. Sami and his family flee their comfortable home in Damascus to make the perilous and painful journey towards a new life in the U.K. Leaving everything behind, Sami discovers a world he’d never encountered – harsh, dangerous, but also at times unexpectedly kind and hopeful. My review
I hope you’ve enjoyed going through this list. Have you read any of them? Can you suggest anymore? Drop it in the comment below!
For National Numeracy Day on 19 May, here are some middle-grade books somehow related to numeracy, or with numbers in their titles. I’ve included their Goodreads blurb.
The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge
The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge Jamie’s dad is an astronaut. This is a good thing – because how cool is that? And a bad thing – because he’s going to be orbiting the Earth for several months and Jamie already misses him badly. Doing his homework at the observation lab one night, Jamie inadvertently picks up a weird signal on his mobile phone. Could it be from an alien civilisation with a message for humankind, a message that Jamie has to get to his father before it’s too late? But how do you rescue an astronaut without heading into space yourself? My review
Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test–middle school!
Lucy’s grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!). Lucy’s not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy’s life has already been solved. Unless there’s been a miscalculation. My review
Maths-whizz Alice has already solved a mystery or two. Persuaded by wannabe sidekick Sammy to investigate a scientist’s disappearance, she’s soon entangled in her trickiest case yet. Dr Learner is reputed to have invented an invisibility suit, but is whacky science really to blame for his vanishing? With the unlikely help of erstwhile nemesis Kevin, Alice solves the puzzle – only to face another. Should she reveal the truth, or protect her most devoted friend?
In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.
In a humorous and breakout book by Williams-Garcia, the Penderwicks meet the Black Panthers.
Three ordinary children are brought together by extraordinary events. . .
Giuseppe is an orphaned street musician who sees no way to escape from his ruthless master, until the day he finds an enchanted violin.
Frederick is an apprentice clockmaker with a past he cannot remember, who secretly works to build the most magnificent clockwork man the world has ever seen.
Hannah is a maid in a grand hotel, whose life is one of endless drudgery, until she encounters a mystifying new guest and learns of a hidden treasure.
As mysterious circumstances bring them together, the lives of these three children soon interlock, and they realize that each one holds the key to the others’ puzzles. Together, the three discover they have phenomenal power when they team up as friends, and that they can overcome even the darkest of fears.
#5. Five Things They Never Told Me by Rebecca Westcott
Five Things They Never Told Me is story to be felt and not forgotten, from Rebecca Westcott, author of Dandelion Clocks and Violet Ink . . .
It’s a glorious summer and Erin and Martha are both stuck at Oak Hill Home for the Elderly. Misunderstood and feeling ignored, they are equally frustrated by the situation. But as Erin learns to listen to Martha, she discovers some very important lessons about making her own voice heard.
Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life…until now.
Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.
No one else can see the evil fairies that rouse Tanya from her sleep, torturing her at the slightest mention of their existence, but they are as real to the 13-year-old as anything she’s ever known. She cannot rid herself of them, nor can she ignore them. But it is her insistence on responding to them that has her banished to her grandmother’s secluded countryside manor.
There is much to explore and even more to fear in the woods surrounding the estate. But, the forest isn’t the only source of dark secrets, and Tanya soon finds herself entangled in a mystery that could trap her in the fairy realm forever.
Galileo. Newton. Salk. Oppenheimer. Science can change the world . . . but can it go too far?
Eleven-year-old Ellie has never liked change. She misses fifth grade. She misses her old best friend. She even misses her dearly departed goldfish. Then one day a strange boy shows up. He’s bossy. He’s cranky. And weirdly enough . . . he looks a lot like Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist who’s always been slightly obsessed with immortality. Could this pimply boy really be Grandpa Melvin? Has he finally found the secret to eternal youth?
#43. The Boy who Fell Down Exit 43 by Harriet Goodwin
For a millionth of a second the car grazed the drenched moorland. If it had come down on any other patch of ground Finn would simply have been another statistic. Death by dangerous driving. But the car hit the surface of the Earth at Exit 43. It slid through the membrane like a hot knife through butter, plunging into the darkness and catapulting Finn from its shattered windscreen as it fell. Finn Oliver knows he’ll never come to terms with his father’s death, but joy-riding over the moors in his mum’s beat-up old car is a quick fix of freedom and forgetting. Until the accident happens – and Finn finds himself hurtling through the wafer-thin divide between the worlds of the living and the dead. Adventurous, charming and poignant by turns, “The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43” is a quirky debut novel laced with humour and a dollop of magic.
Tien Pao and piglet he names “Glory-of-the-Republic” after baby sister “Beauty-of-the-Republic” drift free in storm downriver back to Japanese territory. Following tiny mountain trails back to parents, he meets American aviator. Guerillas sneak them free. Based on real story of boy adopted by squadron of sixty flyers in bunkhouse. My review
Do you know any books that will fit into this list? Drop your suggestions below and I’ll check them out.
So, what do the Chinese in China eat, and how different are they? To make sure the Chinese setting of my middle-grade book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, was authentic, I took a trip to China to get a feel for the place. The places I saw inspired my setting. It was befitting to check out the palates too.
When I say Chinese food, you are probably thinking of sweet and sour dishes, Singapore noodles or egg-fried rice. I love them, and I grew up eating these. But that is the variation in Singapore. What we eat, whether the more widely known ones or the regional ones like Hainanese Chicken Rice, has been passed down and modified from our immigrant ancestors. Later, when I went to live in the UK, I discovered many new Chinese dishes. Some are variations of what I had come across in Singapore, like crispy aromatic duck instead of Peking duck. These regional variations are not surprising really, when you think of how large China is. In this article, I will describe the food I ate in South-West China. I must warn you, if you like Chinese food, I am taking you on a mouth-watering journey that leaves you craving for it.
On my first night, I visited a nearby restaurant. The first thing that struck me was the way my crockery was served. It was all wrapped up in plastic. I am not a beer-drinker, but I associate tall or big half-pint glasses with beer. Not in this part of China. If you wanted beer, it was served with a tiny glass.
Crockery come wrapped in plastic
Beer is served with a tiny wine glass
When I planned my trip, on days out with the guide and arriving late in a new place, I had asked for meals to be provided. I was very glad for this as I would not have discovered new palates otherwise. Here are some of the food I ate. In every meal, regardless of city or countryside, eateries or restaurants, there was always a big bowl of soup to go with the several dishes. The dishes were 75% vegetables. In the more rural places, we were served mushrooms and other vegetables grown and harvested locally.
Soup is always served with the main course
The dishes are mainly vegetarian
On this trip, I fell in love with garlic stalks. After my return to Singapore, I discovered the supermarkets sold them. I just hadn’t noticed them before. From then on, fried garlic stalks was a regular dish on my dinner table. Now that I am back in the UK, I miss not being able to purchase these so easily. I’ve tried to grow my own, but I’ve not had much success so far. Naturally, if I had to pick one food to mention in my book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, it’s garlic stalks.
There was only one dish I did not like. In my story, I described how the food tasted like twigs. That was literally what it was like: thin, brown, hard, chewy twigs. Ironically, in this picture, my favourite garlic stalks was next to my least favourite “twigs”.
Yummy stir-fried garlic stalks and chewy “twigs”
The front of the eateries in rural China vary as you can see in the pictures below
Eatery in Jiuzhaigou
(i) I talked about Jiuzhaigou town centre in a previous article. The blue signs, red ornate doors welcome you. Once you step inside, the white walls tell you they are functional places. The menu is on the walls, with pictures of the food so there are no surprises. In our case, that didn’t matter because we didn’t have to choose anything as our driver did all the ordering for us.
(ii) I thought the eatery in Huanglongxi Ancient Town is the most rustic. I love the outdoor stove and racks of vegetables, all ready to go. On the ground, the metal basins had fishes; usually one fish per basin. This was so common I had to mention it in my book. We did not stop to eat in any of the eateries. Read on to find out why.
(iii) Comparing all three pictures, naturally the prettiest is from Taoping Qiang. The place where we ate seemed to be someone’s living room. Apart from a round dining table with a lazy susan, there was furniture in dark wood, including one where a TV sat on. Not surprisingly, we weren’t shown a menu. Our guide spoke to someone in Sichuanese and after a short wait, a feast arrived.
In both the ancient town Huanglongxi and Jiuzhaigou National Park, there were several stalls selling the satay equivalent of barbecued yak and other meats. Since our arrival in South-West China, we had seen so many Yak products in shops, and enduring the aromatic smell of barbecued meat wafting from all directions. So at Huanglongxi we decided to buy a few sticks to snack for lunch. Sichuan is famous for its spicy food; here you can even smell it in the air when you walk past a BBQ stall. I imagined this was how Han, a character in my book, was overwhelmed with the fragrance when he first arrived in Pumi village.
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When my trip came to an end, I went back to my writing. Fishes in metal basins, the market’s fragrance, garlic stalks and ‘twigs’ found their way into my story.
This article was first published 15 July 2018. Updated 30 Jan 2021. Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is published by Aurelia Leo.