Review of the Day: Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything
Pick up a copy of “Ruby Lu: Empress of Everything” and turn it over to the back cover. There you will find a blurb by author Megan McDonald that says, “I love Ruby Lu. She’s just like an Asian-American Judy Moody!”. That’s McDonald comparing Lenore Look’s character to her own personal creation, and as such I’m sure she’s saying this as a very big compliment. As a reader, I feel a little torn by the quote. On the one hand, that line is going to go over very well with parents and grandparents that want to get books for their kids that are at all similar to the ubiquitous Judy Moody. On the other hand, Ruby Lu is so much better a series of books in terms of humor, pathos, and deft writing that I don’t like anyone, even an author, equating her with anything less than Ramona. But if it gets ‘em reading “Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything”, I’ll shut my trap and applaud with the rest. This second installment of the Ruby Lu series is filled with (as mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements), “new, and preferably more harrowing, adventures”. The lack of children driving cars (shudder) is just a nice plus.
When last we saw Ruby Lu she had just met her new best friend and cousin, Flying Duck, at the airport. Flying Duck and her parents are staying with Ruby’s family and the girl just couldn’t be happier. Sure, her cousin is still learning the language and she’s deaf, but she’s also absolutely the coolest kid in school, bar none. This year, however, may turn out to be a difficult one of our heroine. Between getting into fights with former best friend Emma, hiding some very important letters from her teacher, getting into trouble at school, and a myriad of other adventures, Ruby Lu’s got a lot on her plate. Fortunately, there’s a whole summer ahead of her and she’s gonna tackle each and every problem with her usual panache, no matter what.
Let’s talk characters. I loved the extent to which Ruby Lu adores her new cousin. Of course, sometimes that love manifests itself in sentences like, “Having a cousin from China who was deaf was just as good as having a cousin who had a third eye in the middle of her forehead”. Ah well. But what really sets this book apart from others written in the early chapter category is how honest affection between characters is portrayed in a unique and funny way. When you read something along the lines of, “He loved his sister. He loved everything she made. And he drooled heavily over everything he loved”, that right there is dead on good writing. It’s conservative in its words, but manages a kind of all-ages-wit just the same. Most importantly, you feel the love between the characters. When Ruby sees her mother and just whispers, “I love you, Mom”, and gives her a kiss, that’s a real little moment. One that makes the book stronger for its inclusion.
Let’s talk humor now. This book is awash in it. There are humorous misunderstandings that might honestly strike a child as logical. For example, Ruby Lu misunderstands the use of eye tests. It is her impression that if you “pass” an eye test, you get the reward of a pair of glasses. As such, she likes to practice eye charts at home, just so she can “pass” them later. Then there’s Lenore Look’s grasp of how kids put two and two together. At one point Ruby has checked out a video from the library on “Basic Lifesaving”, and is trying to figure out why “someone would film a drowning person instead of saving him”, as the movie has so clearly done. Again, I’d like to draw your attention to how well Ms. Look is able to convey interesting descriptions and ideas through very simple words. When Ruby finds a stray dog it is said that, “His breath smelled like the end of the world, and his fur looked even worse”. Brilliant!
Let’s talk illustrations. More specifically, let’s talk about one Ms. Anne Wilsdorf’s illustrations. Aside and apart from being a resident of Switzerland, Ms. Wilsdorf’s images are once again perfect complements to Ruby Lu’s tale. What’s more, they’re funny. Honestly engaging and amusing. There’s a shot of Ruby Lu and Emma covered from head to toe in swimming gear (snorkels and all) floating in a pool as their swimming instructor looms above them that’s worth the price of admission alone. Wilsdorf doesn’t limit herself to mere snapshots of action, of course. For example, when Flying Duck begins a new trend of wearing only pink (and Ruby, in conjunction/imitation, does so in green) there are adjacent diagrams of each girl with descriptive sentences like, “Green glow-in-the-dark-see-you-a-hundred-miles-away sweater”.
Finally, let’s talk about the little extras this book offers to kids. The multicultural aspect of following the adventures of an American born Chinese girl is nice (joining such other recent publications as “The Jade Dragon” by Caroline Marsden and “The Year of the Dog”, by Grace Lin). “Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything” also teaches kids words like, “moong-cha-cha” which means out-of-focus or confused. There’s a “Ruby’s Amazing Glossary and Guide to Important Words” in the back that translates everything from GungGung (“Grandpa on your mother’s side”) to liver (“One of your guts. Looks like the bottom of a shoe”). After that there is also a passage that shows kids how to do Chinese sign language with helpful illustrations to aid in the motions.
I hereby declare, “Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything” to surpass its predecessor in everything from prose to politics. The fact that there is not a section akin to the one in “Ruby Lu, Brave and True”, involving Ruby driving the family car (a sticking point for more than one concerned parent/librarian) only makes it that much more enjoyable. A fine early chapter book and an excellent purchase. I recently recommended it to someone at a wedding I attended and I’ll continue to do so for quite some time. Top notch.