Book Review: Shu-Li and Diego by Paul Yee

Paul Romani

Shu-Li_and_DiegoShu-Li and Diego is ideal for emerging readers and young ESL students!

In December, I reviewed the book Our Canadian Love Story by Linnie von Sky. That is a book that seems to be intended for very young, new immigrants to Canada.
Despite its best intentions and cute artwork, I felt that Our Canadian Love Story played up the Canadian cliches and completely avoided any of the realities of migration and its effects on families.
Shu-Li and Diego (2009) isn’t like Our Canadian Love Story. It isn’t afraid to show what happens to average immigrants to Canada.
Shu-Li and Diego was written by Paul Yee and illustrated by Shaoli Wang. It is the sequel to the more famous book, Shu-Li and Tamara (2008).  The Shu-Li book series is based in Vancouver and is about a girl called Shu-Li and her friends, Tamara and Diego. Each of the books focuses on her friendship with one of the two friends. We’re reviewing this sequel just because we happen to have been using it in our classes.
The main part of the story is about Shu-Li, Diego, and a dog called Baxter. Baxter’s owner, Mr. Simpson, has to have an operation. Before this, however, he asks Shu-Li to take care of his dog while he’s away. Diego volunteers to help her, as he once had a dog himself. Unfortunately, Diego manages to lose Baxter, and this leads a series of conflicts and consequences.
What I like about Shu-Li and Diego is that the book doesn’t try to be either an immigration book or a book about kids in any contrived way. Instead, it is encompasses both of these things very naturally.
You can read the book from the perspective of Vancouver kids being Vancouver kids, with the universal themes of friendship, honesty, responsibility and fear present throughout the book.
On the other hand, you can look more closely and take time to appreciate the effort Paul Yee has gone to in order to show what it is like to be an immigrant to Canada. Shu-Li and her friends’ families are all immigrants to Canada, specifically Vancouver B.C. We discover that Diego’s father is a doctor from Mexico, but is having to retake his medical exams in order to practice medicine in Canada. As a result, Diego’s classmates think that his father is either a nurse or an orderly. Diego’s father later explains that professionals like him often end up working as waiters or baristas in coffee shops, which is indeed true and something that should be made much more overt to people considering moving to Canada.
Also, we see the cultural conflict that can arise between immigrant parents and their children. While the parents very slowly and reluctantly adapt to Canadian life (and sometimes the English language), their children very quickly adapt to become fluent in English and very Canadian in their values.

Shu-Li and Tamara

Paul Yee’s original book, ‘Shu-Li and Tamara’

According to Paul Yee’s website, he was born in Saskatchewan, but grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown area. You can see how aware Yee is of the differences between Chinese and Canadian values, and the conflict this can create between children and parents. At the same time, Yee does not judge any cultural attitudes – only the pressure on the child to appease both cultures, which is often impossible to achieve.
Curiously, though, Yee’s accompanying study guide doesn’t mention anything to do with culture or immigration, which is a sad oversight in my opinion. However, his first book Shu-Li and Tamara does! Go figure.
Another pleasing aspect is the geographical focus. The Vancouver street names and buildings add a familiar, life-like touch to the story. ‘Could these children be real?’ kids might be wondering. Interestingly, Shu-Li and Diego’s trek around West Broadway seems to conveniently ignore any mention of the four lanes of incessant, noisy traffic.
The artwork by Shaoli Wang, who also illustrated Shu-Li and Tamara, is simple but pleasing to the eye. Some of the images are much more complex, e.g. those of Baxter, which indicates that this simplicity is intentional and no lack of ability on the part of Wang. Despite this, we love picture books that contain a plethora of images that can be scrutinised, which isn’t something you’re going to find in this book, unfortunately. This is a book with pictures, not a picture book.
Overall, I find that this is a great book for younger ESL students. It is a book with characters that ESL children and children of immigrant families can identify with. What is more, the language is quite simple, offering an opportunity for ESL students to read their first actual book! Such books are pretty rare!