Book review

Luli and the Language of Tea

Luli, a young Chinese girl, trots off to the playroom with other immigrant children while their parents attend the English as second language class. Last time she was here, she noticed that the playroom was very quiet as all the children played by themselves. Today, she came with a plan to get the children together despite their language barrier.

Luli carefully sets out a thermos, cups and teapot and busies herself making some tea. She calls out ‘Cha’ in Chinese, and all around the playroom the children light up with recognition for the word tea in their language. They join Luli on the tea table and pass warm cups of tea to one another. Unfortunately, the tea gets over before Luli has a cup for herself. In an endearing solution, the children pass back a little bit from each of their cups so that Luli too has a warm cupful of tea. 

This book is a lovely introduction on the ways in which different cultures around the world drink and share tea. Showcasing togetherness around the ritual of sharing tea is common in most immigrant communities.The backmatter includes the author’s note about her personal inspiration as well as an informative note about the unique ways in which different cultures brew and sip their tea. 

Andrea Wang tells a personable story through the imminently recognizable ritual of tea time which is often a social event that signals connection. Hyewon Yum’s color pencil illustrations in soft pastels complement the simplicity of the story. Focusing on each child in different panels allows for us to see their individuality. The cover papers with tea cups from different cultures around the world creates an inviting picture of togetherness. I found myself going back to the front page to match each of the children with their parents as well. Overall the book feels as cozy and inviting as a cup of tea, except for an unfortunate glaring error.   

The book features ten countries which have a similar name for tea either derived from the Chinese dialect for Cha or Tea depending on which trade route brought the drink to their country. The languages are written in their original script with transliteration and include Portuguese, Swahili, German, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hindi, Russian and Chinese. 

On this page both the Persian (or farsi) and Arabic words for chai are written incorrectly. Both languages are written right to left but in the book they are shown as left to right. So instead of reading it as Chah-ee in Persian, it reads Yee-Icach and instead of Shay in Arabic it reads Yaa-Ash.

Also, each of the letters of the Persian and Arabic script are written separately instead of combining them. A simple google search shows you how the words are written in their respective scripts (see here for Arabic and Persian). Even if the choice was to keep the letters separate, the letters could have been easily transposed to make the word accurate. 

There were only a few languages in the book in non Roman scripts and the book would have been stronger if the editorial team checked for linguistic accuracy before being published. This is something I have seen only too often –  lip service to the idea of diversity and inclusion without accurate representation of the communities they choose to include. I haven’t seen any reviews that point out this error though given that Muslim reviewers, who would be the most likely to spot the error, are few and far in between. 

It’s not that  publishers and authors need to be experts on all cultures. However, if your book is showcasing a number of different cultures and languages, it is your responsibility to accurately represent those cultures and languages. In failing to do so, the inclusive message of the book unfortunately appears a little hollow. 

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