by Paul Yee
illustrated by Gu Xiong
When Kai-ming Wong's family arrive in North America from China, the young boy speaks no English and has no friends to play with. One afternoon, while playing in the yard of the big old house his parents have rented, Kai-ming spots the face of a boy in the attic window. Benjamin is a ghost - he lived in the house many years before but died from a fall when he was about Kai-ming's age. The boys become secret friends and share a summer of playing with Benjamin's toys in the dusty attic, until Kai-ming's parents announce that the family will be moving. A sensitively written story, The Boy in the Attic will appeal particularly to children who have had difficulty making friends in a new place.
Originally published in Today's Parent (April 1999), Paul Yee's children's book, The Boy in the Attic, relates the story of a young Chinese boy's immigration to Canada. Beginning its narrative with the family's final visit to their great-great-grandfather's tomb, the story introduces the traditional Chinese custom of honouring the dead, explains that paying homage to the ancestors is discouraged by the government, and invokes the melancholy of leaving home for the unknown: a complex juggling act indeed.
Does this multifaceted story risk confusing a young reader, or does it provide the child with a textured narrative presented without condescension? I can't help but think that Yee was uncertain as to whether his story was indeed becoming too complex, for when Kai-Ming arrives in Canada the narrative introduces a fairly stock clich? in children's books, movies, and television programs: the ghost child who still inhabits his old playroom. This figure offers a companion for Kai-Ming, who is isolated from the neighbourhood children because he can't speak English, but it also shifts the narrative away from the newly-arrived Kai-Ming and gives centre-stage to the blonde, apple-cheeked ghost. The reader is left with an unsettling example of how a story seems to inadvertently colonize itself.
Each of these works testifies to a vibrant and diverse community of Asian Canadian writers. Although it may be difficult to discuss these works as aspects of a coherent movement, the poetry and fiction demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Asian-Canadian voice in Canadian literature.
Reviewed by Mark Libin
Cover: The Boy in the Attic