The Amah by Laurence Yep 1999
Penguin Books (G.P. Putnam)
IQ "There's two kinds of people: those who can change and those who don't. The people who do change can maybe become happy. The people who don't stay miserable. Now which do you want to be?" Amy pg. 137-138
In The Amah, twelve year old Amy's mother has gotten a job as an amah, (which is a Chinese nanny or governess) to a wealthy family. She watches over Stephanie, who is the same age as Amy and who seems to be perfect. As Stephanie and her mother spend more time together going to special events, Amy is forced to babysit her four younger siblings more often which results in her having to miss her ballet classes. Amy loves ballet and she has a good part in the production of Cinderella (she plays one of the evil stepsisters) that she doesn't want to give up. However, if her mother continues to make her miss ballet classes, she could get kicked off the production. Another issue is raised when Stephanie comes to visit and Amy's siblings all seem to like her more than they like Amy, their own sister. Not only do her siblings seem to like Stephanie more, but Amy's mother understands Stephanie better than she understands her own daughter.
The Amah was rather predictable. The characters served as a mere backdrop to the main character and the story follows a smooth path, with only one curveball thrown in. Amy is the only character whose personality is developed and even then we don't get a full picture of her. I believe Amy's best friend Robin is from the previous book of his, Ribbons, but it's not necessary to have read it in order to read this one. Perhaps Robin is not a fully developed character because two books have already been written about her. However, Amy's other friend, Leah fell flat as well. I disliked Leah, she didn't seem to understand the stress and pressure Amy was under. That family must come first, even before ballet, a concept Leah could not grasp. Another one of Amy's friends, Thomas popped in and out but added nothing to the story, not even comic relief. I was a bit curious as to how Amy's father died. Did he die in America or China? I was also a bit disappointed that we never read about how the Cinderella ballet production goes. Furthermore, I was surprised at where Amy's dedication to ballet came for because she didn't even want the role of ugly stepsister to begin with. If she was so passionate about ballet and hated to miss classes, wouldn't she have jumped at the chance for a more important role as a stepsister?
Amy was a good character though. She had a dry sense of humor as evidenced in this scene when Amy's mother asked her to skip ballet practice because she's staying late for a dinner party with Stephanie "'You understand, don't you?' Whenever Mama asked you to do something unpleasant, she always finished that way. If she was an executioner, she'd probably have ask the condemned prisoner if he understood before she hung him." (pg. 24) For the most part Amy was a good sport about having to miss her ballet classes (I'm ashamed to say that I would have whined so much more) in order to watch her argumentative younger siblings. Amy did make constant references to Cinderella, comparing herself and others as Cinderella or the stepsisters. The mother's role as an amah is interesting to read about because they do so much more than an American nanny (although I think that is changing), they essentially have two families. Mama's charge, Stephanie, was the only other character (besides Amy) that had more personality. I too was ticked off that Stephanie was so perfect, but that facade falls by the wayside (although even her flaws seemed perfect, in that they weren't that big of a deal). There is a lack of technology and pop culture references which keeps the book from being dated. As I read this ten years after its publication, it wasn't totally obvious that the story wasn't taking place in the 21st century.
I've always really admired Laurence Yep. He's written over 70 books and they all have to do with Asian Americans in different situations, in the past and the present. I've read all his ballet books and I learned a lot about Chinese culture through them. The Amah offers a light, entertaining look into the world of amahs and Chinese families. One of its best qualities is that it is not a dated story.I think this book will especially be popular amongst the oldest of siblings and for those who are only children. 6th grade and up.
Disclosure: From the library