Luli and the Language of Tea by Andrea Wang, illus. by Hyewon Yum

The cover of the picture book features an illustration of a child with medium-length black hair sitting at a playroom table with a teapot, holding a cup of tea.

Review by Claudine Yip

Neal Porter Books (Penguin Random House), May 2022

26 pages, hardcover, $24.99 CAD, 978-0-8234-4614-8

Ages 4-8, Grades K-1 Picture Book, Contemporary Realism

While their parents take English as a second language class, immigrant children from all cultural backgrounds wait in the playroom next door. The problem is: how do you make friends when you don’t speak the same language?

But Luli has a plan to bring everyone together. After she prepares a pot of tea using a thermos of hot water and leaves she brought from home, Luli gathers her courage to call out “Chá!” (the Mandarin word for tea) to the room. The word for tea is similar in many languages, causing each of the children to perk up at a sound similar to their mother tongue and echo the word in their own language.

In Andrea Wang’s Luli and the Language of Tea, the use of repetition means that no child is left out in showcasing their own culture’s language. At the same time, it emphasizes the parallels between the children, along with the community they’re able to grow over a small commonality.

The pencil crayon-style illustrations are reminiscent of school supplies and highlight both the aspects of play and learning that occur in a classroom. The vibrancy and range of colours also complement the children’s expanse of backgrounds. As they gather around a circular table to drink their tea, an overhead illustration imitates a view of a globe, and the sense of harmony becomes a hopeful look at the next generation’s potential.

Supplementing the story is information about the history of tea and tea drinkers all around the world. The author offers easy-to-digest tidbits about the tea preferences of ten countries—one for each child in the playroom—spanning four continents. Also available are pronunciation guides for each of the characters’ names, allowing English readers unfamiliar with non-western names the tools to learn how to say them.

Luli’s innovation and generosity ultimately allow her to bond with the other children through the similarities of their languages and stomach cravings. Andrea Wang crafts a charming depiction of how simple joys can overcome seemingly impossible boundaries. Luli is a positive leader who takes the terrifying first step to reach out to the others, but what results from her bravery is sure to warm readers’ hearts, just like a steaming cup of tea.

Claudine Yip is studying Creative Writing with an Art History minor at UBC. She is currently drafting her way through a YA contemporary novel and sporadically blogs about food as an excuse to post all the pictures she takes at bubble tea shops. Visit her at @cyieat on Instagram and @claudineyip on Twitter.

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