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Spotlight on: Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park

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Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry

In connection with their work in the Wiggle Club (a 4-H type of club -- WGGL stands for Work-Grow-Give-Live), Julia Lee Song and her best friend, Patrick, need a project for the state fair. Together they consider several different ideas, but have trouble deciding on one. Then, Julia’s mother recommends that they raise silkworms, since the resulting silk thread would allow them to enter their project in both the animal and sewing categories.

At first, Julia dismisses the silkworm idea as “too Korean” (she is a Korean-American struggling to balance the two aspects of her heritage), and she secretly hopes that it will not get off the ground. She is especially upset when her and Patrick’s differences of opinion regarding the project result in their first-ever fight. She finally gives in, but the silkworms prove difficult to acquire, then the special food they need, leaves from a mulberry tree, seems to be even more inaccessible.

Luckily, they stumble upon information that their black neighbor, Mr. Dixon, has the only mulberry tree in the area, and he is happy to let them come pick the leaves. But Julia’s mother isn’t too happy about Julia going to Mr. Dixon’s house. This makes Julia wonder, could her mother be a racist?

Project Mulberry is Linda Sue Park’s first novel set in the present day; she is best known for her historical fiction (like the Newbery Medal winner A Single Shard). Of Korean-American descent herself, Park very effectively shows the inner turmoil of trying to find her own self-definition. In addition to learning about the nature of friendship and what it means to be neighborly, Julia gains more appreciation for her family’s culture through her friendship with Patrick. (For example, she cannot stand the taste of kimchee, a spicy Korean cabbage-based dish, but Patrick loves it.) She also begins to appreciate her little brother, known as “snotbrain,” through his assistance on the project.

As a bonus between chapters, Project Mulberry offers uncommon insight into the writing process through conversations between the author and Julia, who would continue to speak to Park even when she was not writing. These are most interesting in portraying the evolution of character development (including which of Park’s personality traits went into the book). Instead of distracting from the story, they raise it to the even more fascinating level of metafiction. You could skip these and just go right on with the story, but I think it is a vital part of the experience.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Gardner News. Copyright 2005.

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