Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Book Unfinished: Gaia Girls Way of Water

While my first book for the Take a Chance Challenge worked out incredibly well (Judge a Book By Its Cover), my book for Phoning an Author was pretty much the opposite. I had major problems with my selected book and decided to quit reading it after 96 pages.

Phoning An Author. Pick a random last name out of the phone book. Find an author with the same last name and read a book by them. Write about it. (I'm flexible ... if the first random name you pick is Xprxyrsss, you can pick again!)

As I explained in my original challenge post, in this internet age we no longer keep a phone book in the house so I got out the only other book I had with lists of names, my AMC Classic Movie Companion. I went to the actor list at the end and randomly selected Orson Welles. From this I looked and found Gaia Girls Way of Water, the second book in Lee Welles' pre-teen Gaia Girls series. I liked the cover and illustrations and with my marine zoology background, I thought it would be right up my alley. I was also interested to read a book set in Japan. However, there were aspects of this book that bothered me to the point that I lost interest and that would also keep me from wanting a child of mine to read this book.

This is the story of Miho, a ten year old Japanese-American daughter of whale biologists who are lost at sea. Her only family is her mother's brother in Japan and so she sets off to a country where she holds citizenship but knows nobody and close to nothing about their culture. Despite her hopes, she finds her uncle to be unfriendly and inattentive. When they take a trip to his childhood home for O-bon, the festival for the dead, Miho has strange visitations from an otter claiming to be Gaia, the earth spirit.

And this was as far as I got because I couldn't stand it any longer. The plot was fine up to this point and the descriptions of the ocean and its inhabitants were well written. My main problem was with the portrayal of the Japanese in the story. Not only were they almost all rude, starting with the flight attendants who made fun of her in Japanese to her face, but the author actually wrote in that stereotypical Japanese-speaking-English way that comedians use. For example, an old man says "No spoke Engrish for ... long time". Yes ... "Engrish". This was incredibly irritating and would be the main reason why I would keep this book away from my child. I don't want the Japanese English pronunciation stereotype being brought to my kid's attention and being presented as the standard.

My next problem was the anti-smoking message. Now, don't get me wrong, I am strongly anti-smoking and I will teach Z the reasons why choosing to smoke is a bad idea. However, this book repeats the message over and over to the point that it's distracting. Miho's uncle smokes and every single time he walks into a room she has to mention the smell that is on his clothes. Each time he pulls out a cigarette, the author calls it a "stinky stick" or gives some other negative description. I don't know the purpose of literally mentioning the smoking on almost every page the uncle is on.

Finally, there was just too much drama. Every time this kid hears or sees something she wasn't expecting, she gets weak in the knees, her legs get heavy or she stops breathing. This made sense when she was being chased by a shark at the beginning of the book but doesn't make as much sense when she merely sees a pod of dolphins in a bay or finds out she will be taking a ferry ride. This book also has a plethora of exclamation points and italics which are distracting and unnecessary.

I guess the point of the Take a Chance Challenge is to try something new without knowing if it will be good or bad. It didn't work out so well in this case but that's the chance part! I wouldn't have picked up this book otherwise but I might try another young reader book, even one with an environmental message. I wanted to like this book but I just didn't think it was very good.

Thinking about writing my own series,

Buy Gaia Girls Way of Water on Amazon or find it at your local library.


  1. Thanks for this post! It is good to know what not to waste my time on. I like to finish all books that I start, so it's good to weed out as much as possible before I pick them up!

    So I'm curious . . . what would you write about?!?

  2. I totally disagree with your review, except the exclamation points, there are too many ! :)

    My daughters and especially my students at school love Gaia Girls. Something speaks to them and they can't get enough of these books. I know the students are captivated with the Gaia/otter character. When Gaia shows up, you can hear a pin drop in my room, every time I read it aloud. They love that character completely. It's unfortunate that you gave up on the story, it is heart wrenching at the end and there are great lessons to be learned. My students were fascinated by the Japanese culture and yelled out all the new Japanese words they heard. We even did Shodo in art class.

    So for moms / teachers reading this, Gaia Girls is a great series IMO. Consider most of the books pumped out are uninspiring and flat. Gaia Girls is heart-felt and moving. Kids love it, period, and end of discussion. To me that’s what matters. It’s a book written for kids. I'm sorry; I could not let your review go unchallenged. I'm sorry it wasn't for you, but yet... I think Twilight is garbage. So opinions are opinions, the rest of the tween/teen world loves Twilight.

    The Gaia Girls Series are great books that spark conversation about the planet and human beings place on it. It's a fantastical journey of discovery, self-reflection and growing up with Gaia.

    As a teacher, this is a must read series. Don't take my word for it, read other reviews of Gaia Girls online.

  3. I specifically said that my problem with this book wasn't the message. I can see kids relating to Miho and Gaia and to the earthy message. The use of the Japanese vocabulary was interesting and educational.

    BUT it was the blatant racism that was being presented to children that was the deal breaker for me. You can't say that there weren't an inordinate amount of Japanese stereotypes (bad English pronunciation, rude, suspicious) presented in this book. That's what I didn't want to read and I wouldn't want my child to read. It's offensive. And I don't care if kids love it if it's not something they should be indoctrinated with. That's what parents (and teachers) are for ... sorting out the things that shape kids' minds. Books can impart bad values to kids at the same time as good ones. I think that the bad outweighs the good here. Kids can get a better message somewhere else.

  4. Tif - I can never decide on what I would write but I know that it would be for a younger audience. A mystery series? Animal stories? I think of ideas every once in a while but can't quite get them past the idea stage.

    Sonia - I just wanted to add that I do appreciate your opinion but it didn't address what I thought was the issue with this book so it didn't change my mind.

  5. I hear you . . . I sometimes think that I have come up with some ideas, but really don't get any further than that! My uncle keeps telling me that writing a book is the next logical step for me . . . I just don't know if I agree with that one!! Ha, ha!! If you are able to get past the idea stage, I would totally be up for reading your stories! I love reading your reviews!! :)

  6. Well, you win some, you lose some. I love the cover of the book too. But it does seem very odd to have them speak that way and to mention smoking so often. Here's to better books in the next challenges!

  7. Sorry that the book didn't work out! Those are all good reasons, in my opinion, to stop wanting to read further. That is definitely the taking a chance part, right? Hopefully more of the books will end up being good reads than not so good. I think this is a very interesting challenge and I am enjoying reading all of the entries for it.

  8. First of all, I just spent 30 minutes or more crafting a very careful response, only to have the computer give me an error message!! ARGH!!!!

    So, in summary, I'm surprised you had such a negative reaction to "The Way of Water", K. My bookstore customers LOVE the Gaia Girls series. You mentioned that you might try another young adult book, maybe even one with "environmental themes", but, to be honest, there is nothing else out there like Gaia Girls. It fills such an important niche, providing tweens and teens with a great story that is not about vampires, dragons, or bratty rich girls at private school. I have so many customers who come in, begging for more information on when the 3rd book will be available. So I have to strongly agree with the teacher's comments here.

    As far as "negative" stereotypes, I didn't get that at all. I think Miho's uncle is stiff, strict, grouchy, but I never got the feeling he was supposed to represent all things or all people Japanese. After all, Miho's mother was Japanese. Miho's uncle seems harsh, esp. at first, because he has been put in a difficult situation, one that anyone might react to in the same way that he did -- no matter what culture they come from. He is a bachelor, suddenly in charge of a young girl, the daughter of a sister whom he believed looked down on him and who abandoned her culture and her family.

    Some of the sense of the "negative" view of things Japanese is because Miho's first and most dominant immersion experiences with Japan are with this uncle, at a time that is terribly difficult for both of them. She has just lost both parents, and everything that is dear and familiar to her. That's why she's always "trembling at the knees", so nervous, so dramatic. But her perceptions change as the story moves forward.

    The kids who read this book have always ended up being interested in learning more about Japan, the culture, the language, the art, the houses, etc. So I don't think it's "indoctrinating" them. But, maybe I would feel a little more sensitive about this if I were of Japanese heritage. Are you? If so, I can respect your criticisms a little more. If not, I think maybe this is being a little too politically correct. And, in that case, I would say that for me to take issue with a blog title like "we be reading", saying it was insensitive to black American culture is just as over-dramatic as saying that the mention of "Engrish" is "blatant racism".

    I would encourage readers to look at all the reviews of the Gaia Girls series before making a decision.

  9. Thanks Rebecca! I'm enjoying reading about other people's experiences too!

    Hobo's Books - If I understand you correctly, I'm only allowed to be offended by stereotypes if I'm of that certain ethnicity. I don't think that's true and I would ask you to consider this ... would you feel comfortable reading this book out loud in front of a group of Japanese or Japanese-Americans? I wouldn't. I would be embarrassed. It's not just Miho's uncle's English that is written in this tacky, broken way. Many Japanese are fully proficient in English. And if you notice, it's not ever suggested that Miho mispronounces Japanese words.

    I don't want to get all defensive here but I would like to point out that black Americans don't all speak in Ebonics nor do they all consider it a part of their culture. That's a stereotype. And for the record, my blog name is assonant -- "the repetition of vowel sounds for literary effect". Now, if my blog was out there trying to introduce people to what I said was black culture and I had a title like this, it would be racist. It's not. But Welles' book is supposed to be introducing youth to Japanese culture but it uses stereotypes to do it.

    I'm sorry that we're not agreeing on this but I still don't see that "but the kids like it" is an excuse to gloss over what is something that could have easily been avoided. Did Welles have to write this in this way? Was it essential to the message of the book?

  10. I think you posted your review prematurely. You said you only got to page 96. The book gets better; the relationship between Miho and her uncle, more dynamic; Miho's confidence and her appreciation for her mother's native culture, more astute. Personally, I don't think you should leave such a negative review unless you've actually FINISHED reading a book.