Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
Title: Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society
Author: Adeline Yen Mah
Chinese Cinderella and The Secret Dragon Society is a children’s story about a girl who runs away from home to learn kung fu and become a spy. Given this far-fetched premise, you might be surprised to learn that Secret Dragon Society is a relatively mature and historically accurate work. These strengths made me want to like Secret Dragon Society. But while it does raise interesting topics (which other children’s fiction might shy away from), ultimately Secret Dragon Society is likely to leave you wanting.
Ye Xian is a 12-year-old girl living with her apathetic father and venomous stepmother. This leads to her nickname, “Chinese Cinderella”, or CC. After one particularly nasty fight, CC is literally thrown out of her house, left to fend for herself on the streets of Shanghai. Things look pretty bleak. That is, until she joins up with some boys who do kung fu demonstrations in the city square. Soon CC discovers they are actually members of The Secret Dragon Society—an ancient group dedicated to fighting injustice. As the story goes on, we’ll discover that the primary injustice of this book is the Japanese occupation of China.
The title Chinese Cinderella and The Secret Dragon Society may scream fantasy, but it actually falls pretty squarely in the category of historical fiction. Events of the book take place in Shanghai during World War II, and its inside cover sports a map of China and Japan circa 1942. The Doolitle Raids, the detention at Bridge House, and the Japanese occupation of China were all real. (Naturally, the main character and her fellow child-spies are fictional.)
Secret Dragon Society is organized into twenty-three chapters, usually no more than ten or fifteen pages long. I’d love to take a moment to describe some of the character development that occurs for CC and her friends during this time, but sadly there is little. But before we get to Secret Dragon Society’s shortcomings, let’s talk about the good, because there are certainly some good things here.
Secret Dragon Society contains quite a bit of excellent vocabulary words. “Nonchalantly”, “crescendo” and “immaculate” are example words that seem to come up naturally during the story. They never feel forced in purely for education, and usually these words have good surrounding context clues. Secret Dragon Society also introduces lots of interesting topics. Religion, morality, familial loyalty, and war are all touched on at one point or another. Thematically, you should know this can make Secret Dragon Society very mature at times. A real sticking point for some parents might be violence. This is surprising, since the violence is not a strong or persistent presence in the book. Instead, what violence does appear is uncommonly poignant because it’s presented in such a straightforward manner.
"The Japanese ordered everyone who had helped the Americans to assemble themselves in a straight line on the beach. Some of the fishermen who had carried the fliers did so and were mowed down by machine gun fire." (p. 201)
In my opinion, the most gripping scene of violence is an intimate one that happens in the early part of the book between CC and her stepmother. The stepmother suspects CC of lying about staying out all night, and she grabs and chokes CC. In turn, CC literally bites back—drawing blood. Most other scenes of violence are more historical and abstract in nature. These are never too vivid, but again straightforward. The usual topic in these cases is the Japanese mistreatment of Chinese citizens and American POWs. As a martial arts instructor, I am more comfortable with topics of violence than most may be. Obviously, parents will have to use their own discretion.
My real problems with Secret Dragon Society aren’t with the content, but rather with its writing and organization. Broadly speaking, it suffers from a grey tone and declarative style. This has a few effects.
For starters, settings are left almost completely unembellished. China in 1942 could’ve been a very interesting place for our story, but we’re only given infrequent glimpses of what it was like. Sights, smells, and noises of the city do come up from time to time but are not richly described enough to transport us back. At best, we’re merely glancing through a window.
Similarly, the grey and declarative tone makes characters and their motivations somewhat indistinguishable. For instance, there are two older women who are actually caring in CC’s life; Big Aunt and Grandma Wu. Yet their motivations, style of speech, and descriptions are so similar, they feel like stand-ins for the same character. Similarly, CC spends much of her time with ‘the boys’ of the Secret Dragon Society. Though they all have different back stories, they don’t really feel like distinct characters. Indeed, they are often referred to simply as ‘the boys’, and I couldn’t name a mannerism or attitude peculiar to one of them which the others didn’t all share. In the end, this makes the characters feel like elaborate set pieces. They bring up a topic or play a part, but they never really come alive.
"A large part of China, including our great city of Shanghai, is occupied by Japanese invaders. Times are difficult. No one knows how long this will last." (p. 36)
Secret Dragon Society’s non-traditional structure compounds these issues, and it feels a little meandering for long stretches. It lacks a strong goal or persistent antagonist. By the time we find out CC’s heroic challenge will be assisting a prisoner escape from Bridge House, the book quickly leads us to an abrupt ending.
It is nice that Secret Dragon Society raises interesting topics, but teachers and parents will have to really draw out the most meaningful conclusions themselves. It’s a good launching point for deep discussion, but due to its pacing and tone there is rarely much depth given to any single topic. And considering this declarative focus on people and their actions, it's surprising how bland and unengaging the few 'kung fu' fighting scenes really are.
“Quick as a dragon striking, David caught the soldier’s ankle and twisted it. Propelled by his own momentum, the man lost his balance and fell heavily a second time. As he lay there stunned, with all the breath knocked from his body, the boys scattered in different directions and vanished into the crowd.” (p. 216)
I can give a soft recommend for Secret Dragon Society to very particular types of reader. For instance, it may be of some passing interest to aspiring martial artists, or those interested in Chinese or World War II history. If you're desperate for a book that portrays a young girl venturing out and becoming more confident, you could probably do worse than Secret Dragon Society. On the other hand, unless your reading list is getting very scant, there’s likely another book more you’ll enjoy more.