Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary, magic realism
Title: The Journey
Magical soccer shoes go on a global journey, changing the lives of the children they meet. Their episodic adventure is the thread that weaves together the diverse experiences of childhood.
From the careless hands of a lonely Chinese factory girl, via a young Somali pirate desperate to impress his father, the shoes end up as rejects in a discount warehouse in the US. From there, they give hope to a disabled boy, before being stolen by his jealous stepbrother and taken to Hong Kong.
Scuffed and worn-out, the shoes fear being thrown away. Reprieve is granted when they travel to the Philippines; a gift from an estranged mother to her daughter. But if they can’t find a child to love them unconditionally, they’ll end up buried forever in a garbage dump outside Manila.
This is a book about the journeys, physical and emotional, of a special pair of shoes and a chain of interconnected children. It explores themes of love and friendship, luck and destiny, and what happiness looks like in a multicultural context.
THE JOURNEY combines the heartstring tug of Kate DiCamillo’s MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE with the grittiness of Andy Mulligan’s TRASH.
Mei Lin’s blistered fingers hesitated before passing her identity card to the young security guard at the entrance of the Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. This guy was new. She hoped he was no better at spotting fake IDs than the other couldn’t-care-less guards, who waved the stream of factory girls through with barely a glance at their faces and photos.
A flicker caused her to look past the guard. On the grey-painted concrete wall, the factory name glowed neon red. The lights blinked again, and with an embarrassed pop, extinguished. Only the two characters for “Lucky” continued to shine.
“Wu Li Juan?” the guard read aloud, causing her to re-focus and her stomach to lurch with fear. He peered more closely at the photo. Mei Lin’s head dipped in response and wings of black hair folded around her cheeks. She peeped up through her lashes.
The guard squinted behind his glasses, as though to x-ray through her shield of hair. He looked again at the face on the card, then laughed. Not unkindly.
“Go!” he gestured, as he swiped the ID. “Have a nice day, Miss Wu.”
Mei Lin scuttled past him, fumbling to put the card in her pocket as she pushed through the turnstile. She hurried towards the throng of nameless workers ahead of her. Among them, she would be anonymous. Just another young girl far from home. Alone.
Her feet slowed down with each step closer to entering the factory.
“Go on, Mei Lin. Hurry up!” hissed a voice, and Mei Lin spun to see her bunk-mate Qing Ling angling towards her from another turnstile. The older girl nudged Mei Lin towards the doors. Mei Lin risked a swift look over her shoulder at the guard, whose eyes were searching the crowd.
“Shhhh! He’ll hear you,” begged Mei Lin. “Don’t call me that!”
She wished Qing Ling would be more careful about using her real name; that loudmouth would get her fired sooner than the borrowed ID card which claimed she was sixteen – nearly three years older than her actual age.
She’d lose this job if the bosses knew she was underage. And she really couldn’t afford to. This was her chance to help her family. Her first month’s salary was due next week and Mei Lin was hungrily counting down the days. Yesterday, Qing Ling had laughed and said she’d be lucky if the boss gave her a quarter of the money. “He’ll keep it all till you’ve been here a year. In any case, the agent will take most of it to pay your debt.”
But whatever money she received, her parents would be thankful. Hundreds of miles away in Hebei Province, they laboured hard on their small plot of land, growing crops of peanuts. Qing Ling’s carelessness could put her on the next train home.
“Oh, come on!” said Qing Ling. “We grew up in the same village; you’ll always be Mei Lin to me. And you’re fooling no one with that stupid ID. Why did you go in his line? I keep telling you to go to the old guy who always forgets his specs. Now stop dawdling…”
Just as the pair reached the doors leading into the factory, a voice called out:
“Ms Wu! Wait!”
The guard! With panicked eyes, Mei Lin turned to Qing Ling. The older girl grabbed the younger girl’s clammy hand and squeezed, popping a blister. Mei Lin didn’t notice the pain.
In ten swift, tile-clicking steps, the guard reached the two girls, hidden amongst the swarm of workers. Curious eyes turned to them. At the far desk, the shift supervisor stood up, but a casual wave of the young guard’s hand assured him there was no problem. Loudly, “You dropped your ID, young lady!” The supervisor sat back down. Workers pushed past.
Mei Lin tentatively reached out her free hand and took the card. “Lucky I caught you in time, eh?” Again, in a voice that carried: “You don’t want to be losing that!”
Then, he leaned closer, breathing out the warm aroma of peanuts. It felt like a blessing on Mei Lin’s face. In a whisper that only the two girls could hear: “That card will get you kicked out if the Super sees it. Try to get one that looks more like you.”
He turned and marched back to his post. Mei Lin stood, slack-jawed; the smell of peanuts had stunned her as much as his advice. She sighed at the memory of her grandmother boiling the nuts in a salty braise. Oh, how she missed their aroma mingled with cloves and cinnamon and star anise – the comfort of home.
Her mouth watered with longing. Her stomach grumbled. She’d had her usual breakfast of congee in the dormitory canteen. The portions were miserly; the congee runny. Not like Grandma’s.
A yank on her hand broke her reverie. “Lucky escape!” said Qing Ling. She pulled her in the direction of the changing room, already buzzing with workers. Mei Lin was caught in the music: squeals and low humming and wild chatter. Words and emotions were spilling out before hours of silence descended on the factory floor.
Like her, they donned pink overcoats and yellow aprons, and tugged yellow paper booties onto their feet, until the room resembled a vast cage of chirping lovebirds. She tumbled her long hair into a net, perched the yellow cap on her head, scrubbed her hands, checked her nails… Hmmm, a little longer than regulations allowed. And one was broken. She’d have to trim them tonight If she had the energy. After a twelve-hour shift, she had no stamina to gossip with the other girls in the dormitory before lights out at 9pm. Perhaps that was why she had yet to make any friends?
Five minutes later, she was seated, one of thousands of yellow-hatted, black-haired heads bowing to their workstations. For the first hour or two there would be banter and a little stifled laughter, as long as the floor supervisor was in a different section. After that, the voices dried up, and really, what was there to talk about?
From her stool, Mei Lin could see Qing Ling a few workers away. Occasionally, they would half-smile at each other, feeling a camaraderie that came from long hours, aching backs, sore fingers. They weren’t exactly friends. She wasn’t even sure they liked each other, though their shared village childhood counted for something in this foreign place.
Around her, Shu, Yueyue and Xiao Dan buckled down to their task of threading laces through eyelets. Like her, they were young and had small and nimble fingers.
“At least you still have all your fingers,” whispered Yueyue, as Mei Lin cried herself to sleep during the first two weeks in the dormitory of Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. “My friend in the cutting room isn’t so fortunate.” With a flair for drama, she mimed slicing off a digit. “Now she’s good for nothing. Got sent back home in disgrace. Be grateful for pain in ten fingers instead of nine,” she comforted.
Perhaps the memory made her fingers flinch, though Mei Lin swore it was an electric buzz that ran through the soccer shoe she was holding. She yelped and threw it upwards. Her fingers scrabbled to catch the shoe and, at that moment, her jagged, broken nail scraped across the polished leather. A scratch appeared on the design of silver stars. She froze in horror. This careless mistake could get her sent back home.