This review was first published in the Underground Writers zine issue 32: Horror
I have a little bit of a soft spot for cursed kids; there’s something about them that just makes my heart sing. So of course, this book started on great legs when it began with Mei Ling Pang who was ‘born at an inauspicious time on an inauspicious day in an inauspicious month’ after a black cat jumped over her mother’s belly while pregnant with her. Mei is, according to her extended relatives, a magnet for misfortune and she’s struggles to challenge this label when her family’s restaurant is empty (despite having the world’s best Kung Pow Chicken), her parents are both in need of medical attention (they can’t afford), and now the evil Dr Heckyll from the Mega Morgue next door seems to have brewed up a concoction that could spell the end of their little town.
Okay, so maybe the reason I love stories about cursed children is because the kids are just so damned resilient. No matter what life throws at them, they adapt and do their best to make it work, and Mei Ling Pang is a shining example of this. Even before the book’s namesake, Little Jiang, appears on the scene, Mei is doing her best to turn things around. She works hard at the restaurant, saving up pocket money to help run advertising campaigns to bring people in, and she’s always thinking of her parents. She barely flinches at the ghosts and ghouls that wander around at night for Hungry Ghost Month, and when things start to go wrong, she’s quick to adapt her plans and come up with new ones.
Cursed children also tend to be kinder and more understanding than others; they know what it’s like to be the one left out or blamed for things that aren’t their fault. Even though Mei isn’t particularly fond of Jiang in the beginning, with his strange hopping movement and the smell of a rotting corpse to boot, she still defends him from the other kids who are quick to pick on him. As the story goes on, and she discovers that Jiang is actually a Jiangshi (a chi-sucking vampire zombie) created by Dr Heckyll’s experiments, she does everything in her power to help him, including standing up to the adults who want to destroy him. Jiang is not the only character to experience Mei’s kindness: the Peony Princess, a face shifting woman who is more than what she seems, quickly learns that Mei sees the beauty in everyone around her.
Kindness is a constant theme throughout the book, not just in Mei but in other characters too; Marr pushes the idea a lot of the world’s problems can be addressed if people simply show a bit of empathy and strive to understand one another. For the most part, it’s when the characters try to see things from each other’s perspective rather than focusing on their own narrow understanding of the world, that they can all come together to defeat Dr Heckyll’s Jiangshi army. Even though this can sometimes mean that characters talk more honestly and openly than we’d normally expect in real life, its worth commending Marr’s effort to encourage children to make these conversations normal.
Little Jiang is an easy read, a great introduction to some of the Chinese folklore and mythology that exists, and it encourages all the qualities we’d hope to see in kids: kindness, empathy, resilience and a desire to understand. It’s perfect for kids who want to read alone but has elements to keep the parents entertained as well. Katy Jiang’s illustrations break up the book beautifully and help give kids an extra visual for some of the elements they may not be able to picture themselves. The spooky nature of this book, makes it a perfect read for Halloween!