Chu Ju's House by Gloria Whelan

The best part of being a teacher librarian is when a kid comes in to the library holding a book against his or her heart and tells me that this is the best book they have ever read.  Sometimes these are popular fiction that everyone is reading, but sometimes they are hidden treasures.  These treasures are books that speak a personal truth and trigger something profound in a few children.  Chu Ju’s House is one of these books.  It has been on my list of books to read ever since Nancy, an ESL student from China, told me it was the best book ever, and I should read it.  This is the book that got her hooked on reading. 

I finally got around to reading it.

The thing about books like Chu Ju’s House, that are set in modern history in a different culture, is that I can’t judge the authenticity of the time, place or cultural relationships among the characters.  What I can tell you is that it felt real to me. 
The story is set In China in the 1970’s, a time when poor families could only have two children.  It begins with the family awaiting the birth of a child that they desperately hope will be a boy.  Nai Nai, (her grandmother) refers to Chu Ju as a useless girl.   
The new child ends up being another girl. 

Chu Ju is an amazing character.  She is a strong, resourceful girl.  When Nai Nai makes arrangements for her baby sister to be sold so that the family can try for a boy child, Chu Ju runs away.  At first she finds work on a traveling fishing boat.  Then she looks after silk worms with girls who have been sent from an orphanage to work for the owner.  Eventually she connects with a woman and her son on a small farm.  She ends up living with them until the son goes off to Shanghai to work and escape the farming life. 

Apart from being an entertaining adventure and coming of age tale, this book seems to open a window to the world of China in the 1970’s.  While it is a predominantly rural setting, the reader is also exposed to a flavor of city life. There are hints about what might have happened to her sister and other girl babies who were abandoned to orphanages had Chu Ju not left.  There are also hints as to what might befall a single girl on her own were it not for the ultimate goodness of many people she meets on her way. 

I too think this is an amazing book.