Book Review: I Dream of Popo – a gentle, loving tale that cuts deep for the grown-ups

written by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo, Roaring Brook Press, 2021

This book, along with Joanna Ho’s beautiful Eyes that Kiss in the Corners (reviewed here), was recommended to me by Megan Hung, who, for one glorious year, was one of my son’s preschool teachers (along with the equally talented Natasha Yeo and Geordy Hale – as always our heartfelt thanks!). Megan is now home in Taiwan, teaching other fortunate children, and she recommended these to us as wonderful books – and also because few English-language picture books feature Taiwan.

I Dream of Popo is written in dreamy, rhythmic language, a gentle refrain telling us of the things the girl does with her grandmother, her Popo, in Taiwan, and then as she moves across the Pacific to a new life, new home, new school and new friends, new language in San Diego. We see the girl grow as her Popo slowly ages, the relationship continuing through video calls and occasional visits back to Taiwan, where the language is becoming unfamiliar, the house smaller, her Popo smaller too. It’s a beautiful book, the contrasting townscapes of the two homes, a world of love and meaning conveyed in the faces of the girl and her Popo.

It’s a sad but loving, hopeful book. My daughter loves the story, its calmness washing across our bedtime reading. But it has an undertone of yearning that I think she sometimes notices – ‘Will you get ill, Mummy?’ she asks me. ‘Everyone gets ill sometimes, darling,’ I say. It seems to satisfy her, for now. We go back to picking out the smattering of Chinese phrases. ‘Wo ai ni, Mummy’, she says, as we learn it means ‘I love you.’ There’s a glossary at the back – even with the pinyin I suspect my pronunciation is poor, but I watch for the tones, do my best to give her the sounds. Ni hao, she knows. Laoshi, we repeat, Teacher. Pengyou, friend.

Because it’s always me who reads this book to her. It brings a lump to my throat, but I can read it without crying. My husband, with parents in Singapore and older family members in India, struggles. For although this book is particular to the experience of a young Taiwanese-American girl, it’s also universal for those with family far away – more so than ever in these Covid-times when our feelings of separation are heightened by the inability to travel.

It’s not East Coast Park near Changi, with its cycle paths by the sea, in this book but the red envelopes and the shoes by the door, the family portraits, the displacement of one language with another, are all too familiar. Our kids talk to their Patti and Thatha and their Nanna by video phone, just as the girl talks to her Popo. We see the girl’s face as she realises her Popo is ill, but we also see her parents’ hands comforting her on the periphery, know the ache of having grandparents ageing in a different time zone. This book gives a brief, heartfelt, glimpse of Taiwan and the girl’s experience, but also finds places of human connection, the shifting compass points of being, the love that can encompass you across the seas.

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