On the Wings of MG: To China and Indonesia

This July, two middle grade books took me on a journey to new countries with beautiful and authentic description of setting. As Jennifer Baker said at a recent NESCBWI conference, “How writers describe setting affects motivation and the telling of the story.” It is the author’s job to look past stereotypes to the beauty in foreign places and write the setting to celebrate that beauty.

Emily Out of Focus by Miriam Spitzer Franklin is about a twelve-year-old girl named Emily who is conflicted about becoming a sibling, but thrilled to be travelling to China where her parents are adopting her sister! She must photograph an adventure to win the photography contest, but the adoption requires time and paperwork. She has mixed feelings about Katherine, a know-it-all twelve-year-old in Emily’s travel group. One thing is certain, Emily finds a very different adventure than the one she had so carefully planned to capture from behind the lens of her late Grandmother’s camera.

Franklin paints vivid descriptions of China’s landscape and cities. Emily photographs “old brick apartment buildings with green vines growing on the sides.” Franklin’s father-in-law, who was a photographer for a local newspaper, “shared a lot of stories of what it takes to capture the moment and take a good picture that goes beyond the surface.” The city has tall skyscrapers, but also “An old man slowly pedaling a bike…pulling a cart full of vegetables.” To Emily’s horror, they visit a Walmart, although it has a functioning disco ball! The orphanage is filled with small cribs and a crowded playroom, but the nannies love the children. My favorite descriptions were of parks with “old statues and big trees,” a “paved trail circling the lake,” and “a path lined with miniature twisted trees.” In an interview, Franklin shared that on her own trip to China, “Shamian Island was a great escape from the big city with its streets lined with restaurants and quaint shops.” After relishing in Franklin’s imagery I want to go see China’s beauty for myself.

The Adventures of Na Willa by Reda Gaudiamo: Na Willa shares her adventures growing up in Surabaya, Indonesia. Over the course of the book, her frustration of being too little evolves into an understanding that finding your place in the world is important!

The reader experiences the setting from Na Willa’s perspective as a young child. Na Willa loves the details of nature: the hibiscus leaves, little white seashells, sand dunes, banana trees, and cassava plants! Beautiful scenes of flying homemade kites, trips “threading through the crowds,” at the market, and all of the authentic language woven through the book bring her world to life on the page! When reading this book with children, I would preview the time period (1960’s) and discuss that era’s context for to the sexism Na Willa faces, as well as the type of physical discipline used to correct children. 

Both Guadiamo and Franklin capture the ups and downs of the creative journey in Na Willa’s imaginary play and Emily’s photography. Franklin even shared advice for aspiring writers!

Focus on the stories you want to tell and don’t worry so much about what will sell. Learn as much as you can about how you can improve your writing craft. Seek out writing partners who will provide constructive criticism along with encouragement. (Yes, we all need positive people in our lives who keep us going when things get tough!) And when rejections become discouraging, focus on your passion and the reason you write. My debut was the eighth book I wrote and had been revised over ten years. Your writing journey may be much faster, but everyone’s is different. Keep writing because you love to, and because you have stories you want to share the world.

I am grateful that these two stories were shared with the world!

What books have you read lately that carried you far away? Please share in the comments!


  1. Lexi, thank you for introducing these wonderful MG books. I’m always impressed by authors who bring stories alive with setting details, and I’ve had a special interest in realistic fiction about other countries and cultures since I was a little girl.


  2. Both of those sound awesome! I love the viewpoint of the character who is adopting a sister. SPIN THE DAWN by Elizabeth Lim is a recent read that took me for a trip! Also THE VIRTUE OF SIN by Shannon Schuren was a different sort of trip. Enjoyed both.


  3. Thank you for these revues, Alexandra. Both books sound like wonderful windows on other cultures as well as being intriguing stories. Sharing across borders what makes us human is so enriching for young readers. We are after all, all citizens of the same planet, therefore neighbors. My answer to your final question is that on Friday my post World of Books: Barcelona will be about a warmly human picture book whose title translates as Why Do We Cry?. The author is from Gran Canaria, one of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Africa and the illustrator is from Barcelona and the book was published in Barcelona. The text and art are wonderfully poetic.


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