The activities outlined here assume that the students have completed an initial independent reading of the text.
A first generation ‘own voices’ narrative exploring the complexity of family dynamics, relationships and mental health, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling offers ample scope for students to connect with and reflect upon their own life experiences.
A specific content warning about issues of mental health, including depression and psychosis, should be provided to students. Overall, the novel’s message is a hopeful and uplifting one, in which the protagonist encounters these complex issues and comes to understand them better. Students should be directed to reflect upon this resolution.
In this activity, students are invited to share their best food memories through a Think, Pair, Share format.
- Thinking back, can you recall a really memorable food moment?
- Write a short sensory description of this moment (sight, sound, taste, smell, feelings).
- What is it about this experience that makes it memorable?
- Can you recall a disgusting food memory?
Invite a few students to share their memories. Then ask the whole group to reflect together on what it is about this experience that makes it memorable. Answers that may emerge include the taste of the food itself, the people it was shared with, or the event it was associated with.
Students may be directed to complete a reflective paragraph about this discussion as a home learning task, providing the teacher with formative assessment data and the ability to gauge the students’ cultural background and practices around food, which may inform ongoing class discussion.
Short film: Bao directed by Domee Shi
In Disney Pixar’s Bao, a Chinese mom who’s sad when her grown son leaves home gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a lively, giggly dumpling boy. Mom excitedly welcomes this new bundle of joy into her life, but Dumpling starts growing up fast, and Mom must face the bittersweet truth that nothing stays cute and small forever.
- View the film in class with students.
- Ask students to complete an initial brainstorm about the message and themes of the short film.
- Direct students to complete a T-chart comparing the overlaps between the short film and the novel, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling (based on their pre-reading of the text).
As a follow-up activity, the teacher may choose to show an interview with the director of Bao, Domee Shi, in which she explains her Chinese heritage and how she chose to present this in her film.
Personal response on reading the text
Romina Edwards’ cover art is distinctive and engaging, providing readers with an immediate connection to many elements of the novel. Shortlisted for the Australian Book Design Awards in the Young Adult category for 2020, the cover provides an excellent starting point to discuss the novel.
Open a discussion about the cover design, explaining that it is a unique attribute of The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling. As readers, we are engaged by the bright colours (pink and green) and whimsical illustrations. Invite discussion of the following questions:
- What kind of reader is being targeted through this design?
- What kind of reader would not be captivated by this design?
- What design elements are being used to attract the reader?
Then introduce students to the elements and principles of design to provide a metalanguage for discussing cover art and design. A comprehensive guide has been produced by Australian design firm Canva.
Students can then use this handout (PDF, 116KB) to analyse the cover prior to reading the novel. Understanding built through this short activity will be used later in the unit to inform responses to the book cover design challenge (Significance).
At the commencement of a class novel study, capturing students’ initial responses (including their unprompted reflections on key themes, ideas and issues presented in the text) can be useful. The web tool Mentimeter can help with this, allowing students to respond to a prompting question by typing their answer into a text box, which can then be displayed via projection by the teacher.
Another format for this initial response uses the thinking routine Think, Puzzle, Explore. Prompting questions for this routine include:
- What do you think are the key issues and themes in the novel?
- What puzzles do you have in relation to the text? (e.g. things you didn’t quite understand, questions about why a character responded in a particular way, etc.)
- Which elements of the text would you like to explore in more depth?
Outline of key elements of the text
The novel’s plot is linear and narrated from a third-person perspective, focusing on the experiences of the protagonist, Anna Chiu. It is bookended by two passages from the perspective of Anna’s mother (‘Ma’), who experiences mental illness. When the novel opens (in February), Anna explains that Ma has been staying in bed, and Anna is looking for signs to help predict whether it will be a ‘good day’ or a ‘bad day’ for her mother.
The family lives in the Western Sydney suburb of Ashfield, and the children attend the local primary and high schools. Anna, her sister Lily and her brother Michael must be quite self-sufficient when Ma is unwell; their father (Baba) often sleeps at the family restaurant, which is in Gosford. Anna is in Year 11 and meets with the pathways advisor, Miss Kennedy, who berates her for not working hard enough in her academic studies. Anna experiences many developmental milestones and situations typically associated with teenagers: developing crushes, agonising over the ATAR, and balancing family and friendships.
The author Wai Chim renders the complexities of the Chiu family with sensitivity, portraying the difficulty of living with a family member with a serious undiagnosed mental illness. The author also portrays moments of levity and joy for each character, providing scope for students to understand that, although she is burdened by aspects of her family life, Anna encounters a range of experiences that many average teenagers do. Anna escapes home life by offering to help at the Jade Palace, her family’s restaurant, where she meets and develops a relationship with the Anglo-Australian delivery boy, Rory. As Anna’s romance with Rory blossoms, her mother’s health deteriorates, and she simultaneously learns more about Rory’s experience of mental illness. With the story’s progression, Anna develops a more nuanced understanding of her mother and assumes a crucial role in holding her other family members together.
Anna’s is a vibrant and authentic voice that drives the central narrative. She is, along with her parents and her siblings, the focus of the story. They are carefully-crafted and dynamic characters who develop in relation to each other and in response to the novel’s plot. Secondary characters help to illuminate the novel’s themes, ideas and issues, and prove to be compelling characters in their own right.
- Anna Chiu, 16 – protagonist
- Ma – Anna’s mother
- Baba – Anna’s father
- Lily – Anna’s sister
- Michael, 5 – Anna’s brother
- Miss Kennedy – Anna’s careers adviser
- Miss Holloway – the librarian at Michael’s primary school
- Mr Murray – Anna’s English teacher
- Connie, Wei – peers from Anna’s high school
- Sous Chef Lim, Ah-Jeff, Miss Chen, Minh, Old Yuan – employees at the Jade Palace
- Rory – the Anglo-Australian delivery boy at the Jade Palace, and Anna’s love interest
- Otherness and normality
- Cultural diversity
- Coming of age
- Experiences of Asian-Australians and second-generation migrants
- Responsibility and roles
- Food and the nourishing nature of cultural identity
- Mental illness
This activity challenges students to find evidence of themes in the novel and connect them to a character. This enables the students to appreciate that characters are vehicles for the exploration of themes, ideas and issues in the text.
Students can set their work out in a table, and the teacher can determine the number of examples and themes to be linked.
|Otherness and normality
Issues and text-to-world connections
Studying a contemporary text enables students to make links between the text and the world around them. This activity asks students to make such text-to-world connections.
Challenge the class to use their research skills to find examples of the issues encountered in the text. This will also help them practise how to formulate research questions. For example, they may be interested in exploring the experiences of Asian-Australians and second-generation migrants. They will need to craft an appropriate research question and search terms, such as, ‘Which suburbs in Melbourne have the highest concentration of migrants from Hong Kong?’ or, ‘What are the most commonly studied university courses for girls from government schools?’
Students may respond to this task by recording their research question and findings, accompanied by a short written reflection on the issue and their text-to-world connections.
Creative response: design a dumpling
This task asks students to think creatively about their own identity and to reimagine the elements of their own experiences: the ones that have shaped them.
To complete this task, students will create a ‘recipe’ that lists the ‘ingredients’ that have shaped their identity, and the ‘procedures’ that made them who they are (this takes the form of a short explanation or reflection).
The task explanation itself (PDF, 2MB) sets out the expectations of a student response, which may be composed using a digital design platform such as Adobe Spark, Canva or Venngage. A simplified template (PDF, 117KB) is also available.
The writer’s craft
Characterisation, language and linguistics
Chim’s use of a contemporary protagonist infuses this young adult novel with an appealing authenticity for secondary school students. The text lends itself to a sustained analysis of language and the introduction of linguistic concepts.
Senior secondary English curricula in some states encompass the specialised study of English language and linguistics (for example, the VCE subject English Language Units 1–4 in Victoria), including concepts such as dialect, paralinguistic and prosodic features, regionalisms and individual and group identities.
For students with the opportunity to study such a subject in their senior years, access to learning experiences which illuminate these concepts is valuable. And for all students, critically considering the nature and functions of language deepens the ability to analyse and reflect on language use in everyday life.
The following activities allow students to examine the use of language and characterisation conventions (and their impact on the narrative), and to appreciate the significance of authenticity in the way that communication occurs in groups and cultures. The following essential questions underpin this sequence of activities:
- What is an ‘authentic’ voice?
- How do we create an authentic voice in our own writing?
- How has language been used to create authentic characters in the text?
Activity 1: drawing task
- Ask students to draw a quick sketch of themselves. This should be quite brief and instinctual. Instruct them to draw an image that represents ‘who they are’.
- Then ask students to annotate their sketch with distinct features of their own lives and personalities, e.g. ‘ballet dancer’, ‘middle brother’, ‘Greek parents’, etc.
- Direct students to passages in the novel that use specific language conventions. Two notable conventions used by Chim are the inclusion of Cantonese and of electronic communication. These are summarised in the table below. Read some of these passages with students.
|41||Anna||Describing the room she shares with Lily|
|55||Baba (Anna’s father) and Anna||Baba tells Anna that Big Wong left the restaurant|
|79||Ah Jeff and Anna||Ah Jeff, who is short-sighted, nearly uses chilli oil instead of vinegar|
|80||Ah Jeff and Anna||Anna tells Ah Jeff that nobody calls her Ginping except for her grandmother on Skype|
|93||Lim||Lim exclaims about customers who complain that their chicken is undercooked|
|101||Ah Jeff and Baba||Ah Jeff reassures Baba that Anna’s help is needed at the restaurant|
|119||Anna and Rory||Messenger conversation about Shakespeare|
|148||Ma (Anna’s mother) and Anna||Anna offers to make Ma some cereal for breakfast|
|157–58||Anna and Rory||Messenger conversation when Anna can’t sleep because Ma is making a racket in the kitchen|
|170–71||Ma, Anna and an older woman at the bus stop||The elderly lady approaches Ma and speaks to her in a language that is not Cantonese|
|187–91||Anna and Rory||Messenger conversation in which Anna checks in with Rory when he has the day off work|
|218–19||Anna and Rory||Messenger conversation in which Rory checks in with Anna and they flirt|
|222–23||Ma, Anna and Lily||Ma wakes Lily and Anna in the middle of the night|
|228–29||Ma, Anna and Michael||Conversation over breakfast, Ma explains that Lily is upset|
|231–34||Anna and Lily||Messenger conversation with Anna wishing Lily good luck in her exam|
|243||Lily and Anna||Messenger conversation in which Lily informs Anna that Ma is missing|
|253||Ma, Baba, Anna, Michael, Ah Jeff, Rory||Ma experiences a psychotic episode in the restaurant|
- Ask students to reflect on the passages together, considering:
- The language and language features that are being used.
- Is this language feature used by the character at specific times or for a specific purpose that you can see?
- How do the language features paint a picture of identity (or add to your understanding of the characters’ identity)?
- How are elements such as gesture, tone and non-verbal communication presented?
- Finally, students will use their discussion and observations to create a figurative representation (drawing) of a chosen character. They will then annotate the image, describing distinct features of personality and language.
Activity 2: mini linguistic task
In this activity, students carefully examine the language choices that support characterisation.
Have students adopt one of the following personas, and complete the sentences from that perspective:
|Young, hip teenager||Elderly man||Female English teacher|
Students could also complete this task as a linguistic survey, in which they interview a range of respondents from different demographics, and ask them what term they would use in each of the sentences:
- I’ve just got a new car. It’s __________ (very good).
- The Australians were beaten by six wickets and I’m not surprised. Their playing was __________ (terrible).
- I heard a talk about personality types on the radio today. The speaker didn’t know a thing about the subject. It was __________ (wrong/misleading).
Activity 3: annotation and close analysis task
Explain to students that the author’s specific word choices play a role in how a character is constructed.
For example, look at these sentences from the text:
I approach the counter, basket in tow. The palms of my hands have sharp red tracks where my nails have dug in. I pull out the items from my basket one by one. The girl behind the counter doesn’t look at me as she rings it all up. (p. 48)
This passage occurs after Anna encounters Wei and Connie at the grocery store. The teacher might ask: ‘How is Anna feeling in this moment? How do we know? Why has Anna been clenching her fists? What is the significance of Anna’s observation that the assistant doesn’t look at her?’
- In this activity, students closely analyse and annotate one of the assigned pairs of passages below, paying particular attention to the ways their character:
- expresses their thoughts and feelings through inner monologue
- speaks in dialogue (what they say and how they say it)
- appears and displays their physical description
- interacts with others and responds to events
- Students should then submit their responses to the following prompts:
- Introduce your character
- Introduce the passages you have annotated and where they occur in the plot
- Share some of your annotations, focusing on what we learn about the character in each passage and how you can see they have developed across the two passages
- What impressions do the author’s word choices (verbs, adverbs and adjectives) create of the character?
- What do the word choices communicate about their identity?
- What changes are apparent between the two passages?
|Character||Passage A||Passage B|
|Anna (1)||pp. 17–21||pp. 308–310|
|Anna (2)||pp. 111–112||pp. 127–128|
|Rory||pp. 89–93||pp. 137–140|
|Baba (1)||pp. 53–57||pp. 355–356|
|Baba (2)||pp. 268–270||pp. 331–332|
|Ma||pp. 147–150||pp. 326–329|
|Lily||pp. 6–7||pp. 301–304|
|Ah Jeff||pp. 79–82||pp. 298–300|
Activity 4: construction of identity
The pattern of language an author uses to characterise an individual helps us to understand the significance of language to identity.
- Students are to watch the TED Talk Sarah Jones: A one-woman global village.
- As they watch and listen, they are to note down interesting quotes/observations and think about what identity is and how it is constructed. Jones manages to capture many of the ideas raised in the previous activities.
- Students are to work through these small group discussion prompts:
- The language choices we make reflect who we are and the social groups to which we belong.
- Whether you like it or not, the way you speak tells other people not just who you are but who you want to be.
- Why not use Standard English all the time?
- Students should return to the passages from Activity 1 (Cantonese and e-communication) to add to their notes/annotations.
The novel centres around two settings: Gosford on the NSW Central Coast, and Ashfield in suburban western Sydney.
- Research and explore some of the demographic data for Ashfield and Gosford. What is the cultural makeup of each region?
- Look at passages that describe Gosford and Ashfield. In what ways are they similar and different? You may choose to represent findings in a Venn diagram or table.
Use of parallels and contrasts
Chim infuses the novel with a range of parallels and contrasts that help to show how Anna feels (as she is simultaneously an insider and an outsider) and how she strives for a sense of ‘normality’. Anna finds her experiences and observations of the world around her to be at odds. She both seeks a sense of normality and comes to accept her unique experiences, as they enrich her understanding of herself and her relationships. Some examples of the parallels and contrasts in the novel include:
- Anna’s perception of her peers and their experiences, e.g. the three Year 12 students outside Miss Kennedy’s office on pp. 15–16.
- Miss Kennedy’s expectations of Anna, compared to Anna’s aspirations.
- The contrast between Anna and her more studious, scholarship-holding sister Lily.
- Anna’s impression of the character Wei and her misconceptions in this.
- Baba’s perceived reticence to acknowledging Ma’s illness, and his care for her later in the novel.
- The mirroring of Ma and Rory’s mental illnesses, which provides an opportunity for Anna to better understand her mother and to advocate for Ma’s diagnosis and treatment.
Students can undertake the Tug for Truth thinking routine using one of the scenarios detailed immediately above. What are the beliefs and assumptions about the scenario at the beginning of the novel, and how do these change by the end? Which version is closest to reality, or is the truth somewhere in between?
Another useful thinking routine is Claim, Support, Question. Students use one of the above scenarios (or a different parallel/contrast from the novel) to make a claim supported by evidence, and then devise a question that Chim invites the reader to ask. This encourages students to formulate reasoning with evidence, assisting with the later rich assessment task of an analytical essay response (Informed Reaction). An example is provided below.
Scenario: the contrast between Anna and her more studious, scholarship-holding sister Lily.
|At first, Anna falls into a predictable mode of sibling rivalry with Lily, and doesn’t appreciate that Lily’s different way of looking at things might be useful.||At the beginning of the novel, Anna describes how the bedroom that she and Lily share is demarcated, and implies that she and Lily don’t share the same interests: ‘Lily has the giant corkboard with study notes, schedules and retro polaroid selfies of her and her friends. I have a single picture of our family beside my bed’ (pp. 41–42). Later, Lily’s studious approach becomes incredibly useful in tracking how Ma’s mental illness has progressed and changed over time. Although the sisters have different qualities and attributes, Anna comes to appreciate Lily’s resourcefulness and thoroughness: ‘I see she’s colour-coded her columns. Ma in bed is highlighted in blue, her shouting-screaming nights are done in yellow and then there are other things, streaks of greens and pinks…’ (p. 302)||Is Anna’s more compassionate, emotional approach better than Lily’s rational, logical approach, or is a combination of both kinds of thinking necessary?|
Text and meaning
To encourage engagement with and close analysis of the text, it is recommended that students analyse assigned chapters, providing commentary and evidence in relation to key themes, characters and character development, plot events, significant quotes, embedded values and messages, significant literary devices, and elements of language and style. A template (PDF, 94KB) is provided for students to complete their commentary. These templates may be collated and distributed to all students, or they may form the basis of short presentations in class.
Below is a breakdown of the novel into eight sections/groups of chapters, allowing an average-sized class to work in groups of three students on this task:
A set of chapter-based questions (PDF, 132KB) has also been produced, which may be assigned to students or used as the basis of class discussion.
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is a novel about seeing the world through Anna’s unique perspective, and her search for identity and ‘normality’. As students have analysed the text, they have examined the way Wai Chim creates authentic voices, situations and settings. This tasks asks them to use a creative writing form and conventions to further develop and explore their ideas and understanding of key themes.
Students choose one of the four options below.
1. Reframe a key moment from another character’s perspective
In everyday life, there are key moments when a person’s choices and decisions impact on the direction they will take. Take one of these moments from the text and write about it from the perspective of a character other than Anna.
2. Write a story/poem about what nourishes a family
Focus on the daily activities and routines that seem meaningless because of their predictability and yet, upon closer examination, have within them culture, values and relationships.
3. Write a story/poem exploring the challenges and opportunities of being different
Throughout the narrative, the reader observes Anna battling with feeling ‘different’. In this task, students are challenged to explore their understanding of what it means to be different.
4. Using a graphic novel or editorial format, explore the theme of ‘being normal’
Finding the sweet spot of being individual within the safety net of normality is a desire we all share. This task invites students to explore their understanding of why being ‘normal’ is so important to teenagers.
Students are required to:
- Embed key themes from The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling in their own piece
- Develop a protagonist or persona with a clear ‘voice’, considering their qualities, what they like and dislike, their strengths and weaknesses, their appearance, etc. (this focus on voice and characterisation has been explored in preceding activities)
- Use several literary devices, e.g. symbols, sensory language, figurative language
- Edit and proofread their writing to ensure fluency and coherence
- Consider the conventions and style of the chosen text form
A task sheet (PDF, 121KB) is available for this assessment.
Ways of reading the text: different perspectives/theoretical approaches
The blurb for The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling describes it as: ‘A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family, and the surprising power of a good dumpling.’ Through this lens, we can appreciate the author’s motivations in examining the intersections between the personal and the universal. Her own background as a first generation migrant, with experiences living in both New York and Australia, positions her to create an authentic narrative voice for Anna. The novel also exposes the protagonist’s intersectionality: the layered and cumulative impacts of discrimination that Anna faces as a result of her cultural identity and experiences, which cause her to strive for a semblance of ‘normality’ throughout the narrative. On page 44, Anna narrates: ‘If you listen to the teachers, they use words like “diversity” or “intersectional” when talking about the school, but the reality is that the students are pretty cliquey and grouped up based on our heritage.’
Anna is impacted by several overlapping identities: as a person of colour (POC) in a contemporary society coming to terms with a legacy of colonisation; as a young woman in a patriarchal and familial society; and as a person with caring responsibilities for a family member experiencing mental illness. For students who may have experienced none, some or all of these circumstances, the novel offers an opportunity to enhance understanding and empathy towards a diversity of life experiences.
Epistemology and post-structuralism
Employing the allegory of Plato’s Cave may be a useful starting point. The allegory, which centres on the notion of appreciating and imagining perspectives outside our own experiences, can assist in communicating the value of studying texts such as Chim’s.
Teachers may notice that there is an irony in using a canonical Western allegory to explore cultural and experiential diversity. In itself, this could be a rich topic for classroom discussion. Students may even choose to explore Eastern or other global philosophies and belief systems, and what they have to say about ‘ways of knowing’.
Show students the TED-Ed animated explanation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Allow them to take notes and share their thinking in pairs or small groups after viewing.
At this stage, the teacher may wish to explain that the allegory of the cave is one way of appreciating works of literature. The allegory may be interpreted in many ways; indeed, the reticence of the remaining prisoners to accept new information is worthy of discussion in itself. By reading about experiences outside our own, we can gain a perspective of the world ‘outside the cave’ of our own circumstances. Conversely, by reading about experiences that align with our own, we gain a sense of affirmation and can readily relate to others (there is comfort in the cave after all). As an illustrative aside, teachers may wish to make the comparison with social media algorithms which bring together similar views and thus tend to consolidate them.
The cave is where we live every day: it represents the boundaries of our own experiences and existence. Our personal knowledge is made up of the shadows that we observe. In the allegory, the things visible outside the cave are the multitude of ‘ideas’ that we are able to perceive when our sight is free to look at everything. Students may find some of Anna’s experiences relatable, whereas others might be unfamiliar. In this way, they may be inclined to hold lightly their own perceptions and experiences, and to be receptive to those of others. Thus the allegory provides an introduction to epistemology (the nature of knowledge), and subtly introduces a post-structuralist lens through which to examine the novel’s ideas.
Activity: journal writing (what’s inside my cave?)
This activity may work best as a home learning task, as it asks students to reflect in highly personal ways on their own identity and experiences. Students will compose a journal entry exploring the relevance of Plato’s allegory to their own circumstances, and draw a picture or representation of their own cave. How are Plato’s shadows demonstrated in their own lives? What experiences or perspectives lie outside their cave? Any questions the students have should be included in the reflection.
A recent VATE publication, Into the Woods: Finding your way through literary theory (2020), explains post-colonialism as:
based on an implicit criticism of traditional literary analysis, which uses sweeping generalisations like ‘human nature’ or ‘universal truth’. An important place to start in getting into the mindset of postcolonial reading is the premise that much of canonical Western literature (e.g. Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy) has previously been seen as covering the essential human experience or human condition, but that these terms are inherently flawed because they exclude the vast majority of humanity. (p. 109)
– Evans, S. (2020) Into the Woods: Finding your way through literary theory. VATE, Melbourne.
By this definition, Chim’s work may be appreciated through a post-colonial lens, as it seeks to bring to the fore voices that have been ‘othered’ or silenced in the predominant or traditional literary sphere. This lens allows the reader to examine certain aspects of the novel – such as Anna’s internalised prejudice, her preoccupation with ‘normality’ and her gradual acceptance of herself and others – as key to the story arc. It acknowledges Anna as a flawed protagonist, influenced by the powerful influence of her experiences, their limitations, and the dominant culture around her. The plot and development of ideas shows Anna’s character growth and complexity. Evans writes that it is consistent with Homi Bhabha’s definition of cultural hybridity:
in a postcolonial world we cannot go back to being the distinct and completely separate cultural groups we once were, but must attempt to learn from one another and grow a new, polyvalent, postcolonial culture. (p. 122)
– Evans, S. (2020) Into the Woods: Finding your way through literary theory. VATE, Melbourne.
The postcolonial reading establishes the importance of the subaltern (social groups excluded and displaced to the margins of society) speaking back to empire through their own self-expression, and leads us to consider the #OwnVoices movement and debate.
At this point in the unit, significant class time may be lent to explore, discuss and interrogate the #OwnVoices movement. Chim herself characterises The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling as an #OwnVoices narrative, explaining that students familiar with Chinese culture may recognise some of the Cantonese idioms or the stereotypical aspects of Baba’s characterisation.
To encourage students to develop and articulate their stance on this issue, a list of resources and readings has been provided below. An effective instructional strategy that may be applied here is the Socratic seminar. This is a structured formal discussion that requires active listening. Extensive overviews are available from the Department of Education and Training Victoria and the NSW Department of Education (including modifications for students learning from home).
Explain to students that they will spend the next few lessons familiarising themselves with the #OwnVoices movement and debate. This will culminate in a student-led Socratic seminar in which they will respectfully unpack the various viewpoints on #OwnVoices in literature.
Starter: class discussion
Ask if anyone has heard of the term or hashtag #OwnVoices. What do the students think it could mean? As the discussion develops, explain that it is a way of describing books in which readers can see diverse characters authored by people who share that identity.
We Need Diverse Books (a US-based non-profit advocacy group) explains that #OwnVoices began as a way of recommending diversely-authored books on Twitter, and has since been widely adopted by the publishing community. Some groups are moving away from this term and towards more specific language used by the authors themselves, e.g. ‘Korean American author’, ‘autistic protagonist’.
Introduce students to key vocabulary and concepts before they engage in their own research and investigation, including:
Put students in small groups to develop a list of identities they believe to be largely under-represented in texts (e.g. POC, immigrants, LGBTQ+, First Nations, neurodiverse, disabled, etc.).
Next, survey students’ most recent reads, asking questions like:
- Whose voice was represented in the text (protagonist and author)?
- Were there any under-represented groups missing in the text?
- Was there any diversity in the text? If not, why do you think that is?
- Can a single story represent an entire group of people?
Following these lines of inquiry, have a discussion about the texts students have studied over their years of schooling.
Remind students that the issue of #OwnVoices is a contested and complex one, and that they should remain respectful at all times when investigating this issue.
Exploring the issue: resources
Students are to explore articles, podcasts, videos and resources explaining the #OwnVoices issue. Start by viewing the short video Wai Chim on the Power of Own Voices Stories as a class.
The format for this exploration is up to the teacher – it could be done in group rotations/stations, jigsaw format or small group/independent research.
- #OwnVoices by Corinne Duyvis, creator of the hashtag (blog post)
- Why We Need Diverse Authors in Children’s Literature by Kayla Whaley (blog post)
- What does #OwnVoices mean? by Blue Crow Publishing (article)
- ‘We Need Diverse Books Because’: An Indigenous perspective on diversity in young adult and children’s literature in Australia by Ambelin Kwaymullina (article)
- New anthology addresses dearth of diverse voices in Australia’s Young Adult literature by Thuy On (article)
- Meet Me at the Intersection: Writing from the margins – ABC interview with Rebecca Lim on The Book Show (podcast)
- Identity and Fiction | Q&A (YouTube video)
- The danger of a single story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (TED Talk and transcript)
- Own Voices Storytelling by Lisa Fuller for Melbourne Writers Festival Schools’ Program (YouTube video)
- Oprah Winfrey gets candid about controversial book club pick (YouTube video)
- American Dirt: why critics are calling Oprah’s book club pick exploitative and divisive by André Wheeler (The Guardian)
- Craig Silvey on writing from a trans perspective: ‘A novelist is required to listen, to learn’ by Justine Hyde (The Guardian)
- In our own voices: 5 Australian books about living with disability by Jessica White (The Conversation)
- What Is #OwnVoices Doing To Our Books? by Kayla Whaley (article)
Some works that have been subject to debate around the issue include American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and Honeybee by Craig Silvey. Students may independently research responses to these works.
Students may develop their own inquiry question for the Socratic seminar, or the teacher may assign one, such as: how important is an author’s identity and experiences to the writing of their texts?
Following the protocols outlined in the resources above (under #OwnVoices), students form inner and outer circles to discuss the inquiry question. It will be helpful for the teacher to provide and model sentence starters such as:
- My point of view is that…
- What do others think?
- I disagree because…
- I’d like to build on what has been said by adding…
- Can you clarify what you mean by…?
- I’d appreciate you explaining further the idea that…
- Can you provide some evidence for your claim that…?
- I’d like to offer a connection to what you are saying…
- Have we considered all the possible points of view here or are we missing something when we talk about…?
- Why do you think…?
- Has your view changed over time in relation to…?
- What ideas or arguments did you come across that led you to this position?
Comparison with other texts
Texts dealing with similar ideas
There is a growing repertoire of young adult fiction emerging from an #OwnVoices position, which explores the search for identity and the struggle to belong within mainstream Australian culture. Moreover, as the publishing industry becomes more inclusive, works are emerging by #OwnVoices authors in which the marginalised identity is not necessarily key to the story being told, but is incidental to the plot. This evolution is continuously occurring and teachers in all educational settings are encouraged to actively pursue texts that both reflect the diversity of their students, and challenge assumptions and stereotypes. Some works that align with Chim’s focus on Asian-Australian or migrant cultural identity, and/or experiences of family secrets and mental ill-health, include:
- Growing Up Asian in Australia edited by Alice Pung, an edited collection which provides insight into a diversity of experiences.
- The Family Law by Benjamin Law, a memoir of growing up as a second-generation Australian in Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s.
- Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung (Reading Australia resource available).
- The Boat by Nam Le (Reading Australia resource available).
- The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin and Anne Spudvilas, a picture book adaptation of Mao’s Last Dancer (Reading Australia resource available).
- The Little Refugee by Anh Do and Suzanne Do (Reading Australia resource available).
- The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which poignantly depicts the migrant experience through wordless illustrations (Reading Australia resource available).
- After Darkness by Christine Piper, which explores the experiences of a Japanese doctor interned during WWII.
- The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke, a memoir documenting the experience of growing up in suburban Melbourne in an Afro-Caribbean family.
- Meet Me at the Intersection edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina, featuring writers who are First Nations, People of Colour, LGBTQ+ or living with a disability.
- How to Grow a Family Tree by Eliza Henry Jones, the protagonist of which encounters her father’s gambling addiction.
- Please Don’t Hug Me by Kay Kerr, an #OwnVoices narrative about the challenges of finishing high school while simultaneously expressing oneself as a neuro-divergent autistic person.
- Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whately, about a young neuro-divergent protagonist with ASD/ADHD/SPD.
The Asian-Australian Children’s Literature and Publishing (AACLAP) project on AustLit provides a comprehensive listing and commentary on a multitude of additional titles (subscription required).
Food in fiction
Show students the Phenomenom episode, The One with the Dumplings. After viewing, challenge them to find and share passages from books that feature food or feast scenes as an element of plot. This could include the sumptuous commencement meals in Harry Potter, or the whimsical creations in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The responses may be submitted as BookSnaps.
Judging books by their covers
This task serves as an extension of the thinking undertaken in the Initial Response section, and culminates in the rich assessment task below.
Students will explore the nominees for the 2020 Australian Book Design Awards, in which The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling was shortlisted for Best Designed Young Adult Cover for its cover by Romina Edwards.
In small groups, have students explore and discuss the design elements of the shortlisted covers, including their use of colour, illustration, mood, line, texture, shape, size, value, space, scale, balance and typography. Use this opportunity to reintroduce metalanguage to students, so they can employ it in their rich assessment task. Students will then share a personal reflection on the features that appeal to them when selecting books to read.
Ask students to upload an image of their most recently read book to a shared platform such as Padlet. You can direct them to caption their own image or another uploaded by a peer. The caption should include commentary and metalanguage in response to the following prompts:
- What kind of reader is being targeted through this design?
- What kind of reader would not be captivated by this design?
- What design elements are being used to attract the reader?
Rich assessment task (creating)
Book cover design challenge
This task asks students to reflect on the design principles they have familiarised themselves with earlier in the unit, and to create and present a book cover for an imaginative book title. This requires students to reflect on form and genre, as well as the repertoire of other texts exploring similar ideas as outlined above. Students should accompany their design with a written explanation in which they describe both the textual connections they have made, and the design elements they have incorporated. A task sheet (PDF, 252KB) is available for this creative response.
Synthesising core ideas
Reflecting on the initial response
Direct students to revisit their notes and responses to the activities in the Initial Response section. These guiding questions may help them in their consideration:
- At the beginning of our novel study, we talked about food memories. In what ways were experiences of sharing food important in the novel?
- We viewed the short film Bao. Watch the film again. How important are the aspirations and hopes of our families in shaping who we become?
- We used the Think, Puzzle, Explore thinking routine to consider the main themes of the text before we delved into them in detail. Has your original list of key themes, ideas and issues remained the same? Do you still have any puzzles? Are there ideas from the text you still wish to explore?
Thinking routine: I used to think… now I think…
This short activity is a useful way of synthesising core ideas and formulating conclusions. Having revisited their initial responses, have students discuss their findings in small groups. Then, provide each student with a small slip of paper with the sentence prompts ‘I used to think…’ and ‘Now I think…’. Encourage students to explore these prompts in an open-ended way. It will be helpful to display and discuss the responses later.
Checking in and thinking forward
Throughout this unit, students have likely developed their skills in writing analytically and structuring essays. A short survey may help inform the teacher as to how extensively they need to scaffold students’ responses. This information may be collected using a platform such as Microsoft Forms, Google Forms, Typeform or SurveyMonkey. Here is a list of suggested questions (PDF, 117KB).
Students have undertaken a range of learning experiences to build a detailed understanding of the text. At this stage, they will benefit from synthesising and documenting this evidence for their analytical text response. Providing the collated chapter analyses from the students’ group presentations (Close Study) will also be helpful here. To kick-start this evidence gathering sprint, facilitate a ‘brain dump’ on the text, independently or collaboratively. Students should record ideas, examples, evidence and quotes for the key aspects of the text listed below. This may be as simple as a brainstorm and mind map on butcher’s paper, or might involve an electronic platform such as Padlet. One option is to create a Padlet with the following columns and subtopics:
- ‘otherness’ (insider/outsider experiences)
- responsibility and roles
- Asian-Australians (the migrant experience and generational culture)
- coming of age
- the importance of choices
- the nourishing nature of cultural identity
- an immigrant experience
- understanding of mental health across cultures
- the importance of food
- family dynamics and responsibilities
- cultural taboos and conservatism
- Symbols and motifs
- Jade Palace
- good day/bad day
- Literary features
- figurative language (similes, metaphors, personification, imagery)
- dialect and demotic language
Students will be impressed with how quickly their collective knowledge accretes. Following this activity, it may be useful to set a short home learning task to write an analytical paragraph. This will help students apply the large amount of evidence they have gathered and practise their writing, which they can workshop with each other or the teacher before approaching the rich assessment task.
Rich assessment task
Analytical essay response (responding and creating)
The analytical and critical thinking employed throughout this unit puts students in a good position to express their understanding in the form of an analytical essay. Students have already produced creative responses in the form of prose and design; this written response allows them to analytically interrogate the text’s meaning. This culminating piece of writing is further explained in the task sheet (PDF, 133KB) and supporting PowerPoint resource (PPT, 151KB), which explains key features of analytical writing and provides some samples. The design of the PowerPoint is deliberately simple, so that teachers may modify it for their own context.