REVIEW: Danny Chung Sums It Up by Maisie Chan, illustrated by Natelle Quek
A touching and funny middle-grade story about a boy whose life is turned upside down when his Chinese grandmother moves in
Eleven-year-old Danny’s life is turned upside down when his Chinese grandmother comes to live with his family in England. Things get worse when Danny finds out he’ll have to share his room with her, and she took the top bunk! At first, Danny is frustrated that he can’t communicate with her because she doesn’t speak English—and because he’s on the verge of failing math and Nai Nai was actually a math champion back in the day. It just feels like he and his grandmother have nothing in common.
His parents insist that Danny help out, so when he’s left to look after Nai Nai, he leaves her at the bingo hall for the day to get her off his back. But he soon discovers that not everyone there is as welcoming as he expected . . . Through the universal languages of math and art, Danny realizes he has more in common with his Nai Nai than he first thought. Filled with heart and humor, Danny Chung Sums It Up shows that traversing two cultures is possible and worth the effort, even if it’s not always easy.
I was intrigued by this cover and reading about the immigrant experience over several generations. The illustrations of what Danny “draws” over the course of the story are marvelous. There are lots of issues that are examined and most are resolved in ways that have been integrated into the story without any “where did that come from?” moments. I think younger middle school readers would enjoy it even if, for an adult, the problems are all a bit too neatly tied up in the end.
The book does an excellent job showing us Danny and his world. He’s the son of immigrants who moved to England and now work hard in their own Chinese takeaway restaurant. They want him to excel in school so that he will have an easier time. But Danny’s love is art and not maths. His parents don’t forbid him to draw but they definitely don’t encourage him either. Then what his parents see as a wonderful surprise is revealed to Danny when his Chinese grandmother unexpectedly (for him) arrives and will be sharing Danny’s room in the small apartment above the restaurant.
Danny’s feelings about this, about his relationship with his best friend Ravi, about the bullies who sometimes mock both of the boys, and his frustration with the expectations of many people are clear. The immigrant experience of his parents and his Nai Nai – different in some ways yet still similar – contrasts to Danny’s “I was born here” reality. As his Nai Nai ventures out and embraces life in Birmingham despite not speaking the language, Danny begins to see her not as an embarrassing relative but as someone willing to take on major changes in her life with exuberance as well as someone who deeply loves him and supports him.
I enjoyed watching Danny figure out who and what are really important to him. He gets to follow his passion with his parents’ approval and learns a thing or two from Nai Nai. The struggles that Danny and his family have balancing two cultures and fitting in are front and center but without being too angsty. Most of the issues are resolved – which may not be exactly realistic even if the ways this is done are believable. It’s a nice story and I liked it though I probably won’t be pulling it out to read again. C+