Mary is the third child in a Chinese family that has lived in the United States for only a year. She is trying to be as American as possible, and wants to become friends with Holly, the popular girl at school. Mary secretly keeps a kitten given to her by Holly. The story is filled with moments of Mary trying to keep the kitten hidden and trying not to be embarrassed by her family. In the end Mary learns to appreciate her family and those that know how to really be a friend.
The reader is thrown into the story of Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family on the very first page and the humorous events keep the pages turning until the very end. This book is the second in a series about the Yang children, but it is not necessary to read them in order. Throughout the books comparisons between American and Chinese cultures are made. They help to show how difficult it can be for newcomers to transition into a different way of life. The strength of the story is the humor that is used to illustrate the differences. Namioka creates funny situations, but highlights the need for everyone to be accepting and patient.
Although the book is a juvenile chapter book, some illustrations are included. They help the reader to visualize the main character and others, whose features are really never discussed. They also help to clarify descriptions of the sister and her Chinese clothes.
The cultural markers that are emphasized the most in the story are names, foods, and language. Mary and her siblings go by several names in the story. Mary is the name she uses at school since she thinks that her Chinese name, Yingmei, is too difficult for everyone to remember. Mary's younger brother, Yingtao, was given the nickname Sprout at school since he likes eating bean sprout sandwiches at lunch instead of the usual peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that everyone else eats. The older brother and sister use their Chinese names at school, but in the story Yingmei and her sibling's Chinese names are really only mentioned when their parents are talking to them. Mary is called Third Sister by her brothers and sisters while Sprout is called Fourth Brother. Mary's older siblings are called Second Sister and Eldest Brother. Since Mary is the narrator of the story the names Eldest Brother, Second Sister, and Fourth Brother are used the most.
A lot of information about foods and customs is presented in the first chapter since the Yang family is invited to spend Thanksgiving with their friends, the Conners. This is the first time that the Yangs celebrate Thanksgiving. Although the Yangs have learned about American culture by reading etiquette books, they discover that they still have a lot to learn. When the Yangs are introduced to another guest, Mrs. Hanson, they all stick out there hands at once to shake hands, causing an awkward moment. A large turkey is present for the meal and this is a new food for the Yangs. They never baked in China and only ever ate smaller birds that were cooked and cut up in the stores. When Mr. Conner slices the turkey Mary wonders why he does not complain about having to do this task. She and her family are even more confused when he starts scooping the stuffing out of the turkey, since they think he is taking out the guts.
The first misunderstanding occurs when the plates are served. The first plate is given to Mary's mother, but she tries to give it to Mrs. Hanson since she looks older and it is a Chinese custom to serve the oldest first. This situation is made worse when Mother asks Mrs. Hanson' age and tries to compliment her by saying she looks old. Mother does not understand that this is an insult in America. She makes the situation worse when she later presents another misunderstood compliment and tells Mrs. Hanson that she looks fat. Situations like this continue throughout the book. Mary is embarrassed by her family and wishes that they were more American, but in the end she learns to appreciate her family and finds that Americans should try to be more understanding and patient with them as they try to adapt.
The Yangs know English, but continue to speak Chinese with each other. There are still a lot of English words, phrases, and expressions that they do not understand and this creates interesting experiences for Mary. Mary keeps a journal in which she writes down new words that she hears, but even she winds up making some mistakes. Her father has a difficult time with English since he has trouble pronouncing some sounds. Mary is embarrassed at a school function when her father says, "the lice glows near the liver," instead of the rice grows near the river. She later understands that he must also feel bad when she hears him practicing the line over and over again. Plenty of other examples of the Yangs misunderstanding English are present in the story.
Throughout the story Mary is trying to impress a girl at school, Holly, so that they can become good friends. The more she gets to know Holly the more she realizes that Holly does not really care about others and expects everyone to follow her lead. Another girl, Kim, seems to be mean to Mary at first, but she slowly becomes the caring friend that Mary can relate to. This portrayal of friendship is realistic and brings an aspect to the story that all kids can understand.
"Yingmei learns her lesson (including the fact that Holly isn't worth it), makes a good friend elsewhere, and finds a home for the kitten, all of which is predictable but satisfying, and her bouncy narration is a refreshing contrast to the more sober 'multicultural' fare we've been seeing. Occasional line drawings are witty and graceful." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
Share the other books about the Yang family, Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear and Yang the Second and Her Secret Admirers.
Mary must learn how to take care of her cat, Rita, in the story. Extend this aspect of the story by discussing cat care. Share information from the following juvenile nonfiction books:
- All About Cats and Kittens by Emily Neye
- A Cat for You: Caring for Your Cat by Susan Blackaby
- Cats: How to Choose and Care for a Cat by Laura Jeffrey