Tiger Daughter, by Rebecca Lim
Tiger Daughter is a powerful and captivating read and is one of my top picks this year for middle grade readers. The story is told through the eyes of Wen Zhou, the only child of Chinese immigrants. Through her intimate first-person perspective, we are drawn immediately into her world. It quickly becomes clear that Wen’s home life is somewhat strained – she has high expectations placed on her by both parents. Not only this, but due to her father’s volatile and controlling behaviour, Wen and her mother feel restricted and at times afraid.
The only respite for Wen is her friendship with Henry Xiao, whose home life is also challenging. Wen and Henry are determined to create better lives for themselves, planning to sit an entrance exam that will grant them entry to a selective school.
However, tragedy strikes Henry’s family, and their plans are thrown into disarray. Will Wen find a way to get through to her friend while navigating her own fractured home life?
It is impossible not to become completely invested in the welfare of both Wen and Henry, as they attempt to navigate complicated family dynamics, tragedy and racism. I found myself desperately hoping they would find the courage to stay true to their goal to create a better future for themselves.
Wen’s voice is strong and unique - at times heartbreakingly vulnerable, but yet also shining with humour and courage.
Fear is a thread which runs through this narrative – and is an obstacle that not only Wen and Henry need to try to overcome in order to live better lives, but is also something Wen’s parents both grapple with. I found the development of the adult characters interesting – sometimes parents are not portrayed in any great depth in middle grade or YA fiction, as young protagonists are left to figure out their own problems. I enjoyed seeing the way Wen’s mother slowly realises she needs to empower herself to overcome her fear of the restraints her husband has placed on her life, to reclaim her agency. But Wen’s father is also afraid – of being considered ‘useless’, of not being able to provide for his family in this new land, of being perceived a certain way by outsiders. His fear may not be so easy to overcome, and there are no easy answers – but yet there is hope.
This book shines a light on the way in which girls and women can empower themselves to reclaim their voices, even when they are afraid. Despite the moments of tension in the story, there are also many moments of tenderness - as seen in Wen and Henry's exchange of drawings. We are shown the power of friendship and love to help us endure tragedy.
This story gives voice to the marginalised, giving it power through centring a perspective not always heard in middle grade fiction.
Rebecca Lim does not talk down to her middle grade audience or attempt to gloss over serious issues such as racism, male privilege, violence, poverty, emotional abuse, and bullying. These issues are portrayed with sensitivity and assurance.
This story has much heart and hope and is highly recommended.
Published by Allen & Unwin