The Garden of Empress Cassia
Kane Miller, 2011 (first published in Australia, 2002).
In illustrator Gabrielle Wang‘s debut as a writer for middle-grade girls, she introduces her heroine, Chinese-Australian Mimi, with a distinctly off-putting description: the girl smells bad. Her father, it turns out, runs a Chinese herb shop. Between his concoctions and her mother’s cooking, Mimi’s clothes and body are infused so distinctively that she’s known at school as Stinky Loo.
Not surprisingly, Mimi is ashamed of her parents and her heritage and resentful of their strictness. Wang’s story takes her on a journey of discovery in which she and her parents become reconciled, she stands up for herself with a mean girl who taunts her, and she discovers her true talents as she grows into a more sensitive and fully realized character.
Mimi’s path is through art. A teacher gives her a beautiful box of Empress Cassia pastel crayons with the mysterious caution that they are powerful and she must not let anyone else use them. Taking the sidewalk outside her parents’ shop as her canvas, Mimi draws a miraculous garden that literally pulls people in. After their visits to the magical Garden of Empress Cassia, they return to normal reality with no memory of their trip but with a more appreciative sense of life and a more generous attitude toward others. It’s a healing garden, Mimi discovers.
Mimi’s mother takes advantage of the crowds the garden attracts to open a little tea house for visitors. Dad returns from attending his brother’s last illness and death a kinder, gentler man. A popular boy becomes Mimi’s friend. When the mean girl tricks Mimi and steals the pastels, the garden she draws sweeps her into a dark experience from which Mimi and her friends save her.
All’s well that ends well in this fantasy, but teachers and parents may have objections beyond Wang’s smelly introduction. Throughout the text, adult Chinese are quoted as speaking in pidgin-like English; a few initial quotes or scattered examples could do the job as well, without modeling muddled grammar. Wang‘s illustrated map of Empress Cassia’s garden in the back matter helps readers imagine Mimi’s adventures. While thoughtful readers may wish for better editing, The Garden of Empress Cassia nevertheless offers an exciting tale for young girls from any culture.