British-Chinese author Maisie Chan has had a good couple of years. Her debut novel Danny Chung Does NOT Do Maths has been nominated and shortlisted for a number of awards, recently winning the Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize. Now, Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is her next offering and I cannot imagine why she would not win awards for it too.
Lizzie Chu lives in Glasgow with her forlorn and forgetful granddad, “Wai Gong”, after the passing of her Grandma Kam. Her Wai Gong is of course still grieving after his wife’s death and Lizzie notices he is no longer his usual self anymore, which in turn means she does a lot around the house, including the cleaning, cooking, shopping and even making sure the bills for their flat are paid on time. Thankfully, outside of the chaos and confusion at home, her diverse best friends Chi (who is half-Vietnamese) and Tyler (Black with two dads) are always there to try and support her and cheer her up when she’s down.
On her twelfth birthday, Lizzie finds a present from her grandma before she died with four tickets to Blackpool Tower Ballroom, which she gets extremely excited about. She and her Wai Gong are both big fans of Strictly Come Dancing and it will allow Wai Gong to relive the fun times he had with Grandma Kam. Despite some setbacks, which mainly revolve around Wai Gong breaking his favourite statue of Chinese goddess Guan Yin and believing it’s bringing him bad luck, Lizzie eventually manages to unconventionally convince him to go to Blackpool along with Chi and Tyler, chaperoned by Chi’s older brother Minh.
The entire adventure is a rollercoaster of emotions, both good and bad, with plenty of laughs, tears and shenanigans (including cosplaying, biker gangs and a Chinese Elvis) along the way and poor Lizzie and co are faced with an obstacle at almost every corner. But with a little determination, a lot of hope, strong friendships, the kindness of strangers and a flowing white gown, nothing can keep Lizzie Chu from dancing!
What is so brilliant and beautiful about Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is the themes that are explored throughout it. There is grief, that both she and Wai Gong suffer from as they sorely miss Grandma Kam, but endeavour to try and keep persevering in her absence. How does this emotion differ between a 12-year-old girl who loses the closest woman in her life and is thrown into doing the duties of an adult and carer, and that of an elderly man who has lost his wife of many decades? Part of this hit a little close to home, knowing how my own dad suffered after my mum passed, though it was inspiring to see a subject like this touched on in a children’s book. Another normality that is mentioned is diverse family situations. Lizzie’s friend Tyler has two dads and no big deal is made of it, though there are references to the flack he gets for it, while their other friend Chi comes from a mixed family (her dad is Vietnamese) and the cross-cultural differences within their family is often talked about.
And I commend Maisie Chan for referencing the racism that both Lizzie and Chi face both in and out school, showing that the reality for many non-White people – even young children – does still exist. I think this is extremely important to have in the story to highlight the lived experiences of people like them, which also hopefully shows non-White and in particular non-Asian readers the impact racism, stereotypes and bullying has on this marginalised group of ethnicities. However, on a positive note, the Asian representation that is current (and it’s very current) in today’s world and media and the prevalence of Chinese culture is a focal point in many parts of the story. Films like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are mentioned and legendary stories about Guan Yin are told by Lizzie and Wai Gong on several occasions. This is also important, helping to educate people on the histories and intricacies that are a part of a the rich Chinese culture.
As with Danny Chung Does NOT Do Maths, Sue Cheung’s Chinglish, Maddy Yip’s Guide to Life and Guide to Holidays, Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu continues to represent ESEA voices and stories and bring issues such racism and cross-cultural identity to the forefront of children’s and YA literature. While ultimately, Lizzie Chu is like every other normal child her age (except for effectively being her Wai Gong’s carer), her identity as someone of Chinese descent who is proud of being so and in touch with her heritage makes her stand out more as a strong and inspirational character children like her can look up to.