Mei-Mei’s Lucky Birthday Noodles: A Loving Story of Adoption, Chinese Culture and a Special Birthday Treat by Shan-Shan Chen, illustrated by Heidi Goodman
“Today is Mei-Mei’s birthday. She is turning six years old,” the first double-page spread announces. Well … sort of. “‘This is the day you and Daddy brought me home from China so we could be a family!'” Mei-Mei reminisces as she wakes her parents … which means what the family is calling her ‘birthday’ can’t be her actual natal day. Given the legal logistics, the adoption of a Chinese baby on the day of his/her actual birth by a foreign couple is highly improbable. Meanwhile, the corresponding illustration depicts a swaddled Mei-Mei in the lap of a parent in an airplane window seat. Since she couldn’t have been a newborn then but was still a baby, this ‘birthday’ is more a homecoming anniversary. Details, details, I know!
So the story continues … and Mei-Mei brushes her teeth, washes her face, then gets dressed in “her beautiful new dress … which makes her feel like a princess.” In her party finery, Mei-Mei goes straight to the kitchen to help her mother make “good luck noodles” in honor of her Chinese culture: “it is a tradition to eat noodles when celebrating a birthday.” As careful and tidy as a six-year-old might be, helping her mother make a many-step stir-fried meat, veggie, noodle dish without risking the fate of her festive garb seems unlikely. Details again?
As soon as the “chow mien” is ready, Mei-Mei’s well-wishers arrive, including Nai-Nai and Yei-Yei who hand Mei-Mei a traditional red envelope. Will most readers know that Nai-Nai and Yei-Yei are Mei-Mei’s father’s parents? [And does it seem odd that Mei-Mei’s father never reappears after the initial morning hug?] Would Mei-Mei call her presumably non-Chinese grandparents by their informal Chinese titles? In the meantime, the meal is happily in progress, although too quickly Mei-Mei announces, “Today was a great day,” as the book ends. That ‘was’ implies that the day is over, right? But does that compute? An hour max to get from bed to kitchen, 35 minutes (according to the kid-friendly recipe at book’s end) to prepare and cook, about two hours to party-hearty, and then maybe it’s 11 or noon by then …? Dare I ask … what’s for lunch?
Call me picky, but the details clearly don’t seem to fit together here. Timing is arbitrary at best, from Mei-Mei’s actual birthday, to the party time (late breakfast gathering? and can a 6-year-old go for that long from wake-up time without even a snack?), to the ‘great day’ that’s over in a flash.
In her “Introduction,” author Shan-Shan Chen (her name is hyphenated on the cover, but not on the inside copyright and ending “Acknowledgements” pages – details again?) celebrates “different races coming together to become one blended family.” Heartfelt intentions are surely admirable, but narrative execution here is disappointing: preparing for a birthday party with the majority of the pages devoted to the step-by-step making of a single dish just isn’t much of a story. Ironically, that celebration of multi-culti families isn’t particularly reflected by artist Heidi Goodman who presents the few adults via a couple of pale body parts (a mother’s neck, a grandparent’s hand) within the story, although the back cover at least is a happy family portrait; so, too, Goodman misses an easy, obvious opportunity to be more diversely inclusive by depicting only Caucasian birthday guests for Mei-Mei.
“This book was written to foster an interest in cooking among a younger group of children through a story rather than a cookbook,” Shen explains. That said, her toothsome meal could certainly have benefited with a re-distribution of the main ingredients. A little less time in the kitchen would surely have proven more enjoyable for her readers.