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Novel Kids

Novel Kids
Fred Lindstrom, Upper School English faculty

Do you know this girl? 

She struggles with mornings; opening her bleary eyes and trying to focus brings her a sense of both excitement and dread. Nearly blind without them, she likes her glasses because they conceal what she dislikes most about her face. Donning her school uniform and grabbing her mother’s parasol, she dashes out the door imagining she is walking through the streets of Paris—until she must pass some workmen whose stares disrupt her fantasy. School is a rollercoaster ride of daydreams, social awkwardnesses, and boredom. She returns home to cook for the guests of a mother from whom she craves attention, luxuriating in the process of creating a beautiful meal while also certain that it will be tasteless, despite the praise from her mother’s friends.

The child is the nameless Japanese teen narrator from Osamu Dazai’s 1933 novella, Schoolgirl. Although it focuses only on a single day, it brilliantly captures the highs and lows of the teenage experience. Dazai, who was 30 when he wrote this bestseller, strikes a false note here and there, but otherwise, his portrayal of the girl’s thoughts is a tour de force.

Critics and scholars compare the narrator’s paradoxical expressions and mercurial moods to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which, coincidentally, my ninth grade students have just finished reading.

As I continue to explore East Asian literature in translation, I am struck by how much of what I encounter is both strange and familiar, and though the American coming-of-age genre can sometimes seem stale, reading novels focused on the lives of middle and high-school-age students in China, Korea, and Japan reminds me of how powerful and affecting the genre can be when an artist succeeds in creating a believable child’s-eye-view of the world. 

If you want a glimpse into what it might be like to be a young person in East Asia, you must read the 1960 classic My Memories of Old Beijing, by Lin Hai Yin, or perhaps you might find two short reads from the 21st century more to your liking: My Brilliant Life, by Kim Ae-Ran and I Want to Kick You in the Back, by Risa Wataya. 

The first is about a 17-year-old Korean boy who is suffering from progeria, a disease that causes his body to age rapidly. His life is by no means ordinary, but between the lines we learn about the “normal” he and his family are seeking. In a twist, his parents are very young themselves, having dropped out of high school when his mother discovered she was pregnant. To some extent, their son becomes their parent. The tone is philosophical and poignant, but never grim. A word of caution: like Korean movies, Korean novels can hold alarming, destabilizing surprises!

Ms. Wataya was 17 when she began writing I Want to Kick You in the Back, telling her parents she was preparing for university exams when she was actually laying the foundation for her award-winning novel about two high school outcasts who become friends and possibly more. The book is not polished and the topic is more than problematic; the version I read was riddled with misspellings. Nevertheless, I can not stop thinking about Hatsu’s unrequited love for the brooding, neurotic Ninagawa, a boy with an unhealthy obsession with a biracial fashion model. Hatsu’s pursuit of Ninagawa is maddening. One wants to shake both of them out of their equally self-destructive behaviors. 

If you wish to learn more about 20th and 21st-century Chinese, Japanese and Korean fiction, please follow me at, where I share reviews as a follow-up to work begun on a Congdon Sabbatical during the Winter and Spring of 2020-21, when I immersed myself in reading and writing about 150 novels. I continue to work on this project whenever I can, hoping to inspire students and teachers to read classic and emerging writers from East Asia. My work has allowed me to connect with authors, translators, and illustrators and publish reviews in professional journals. Most importantly, I have had the opportunity to speak in greater depth to Dana Hall’s students from East Asia about their favorite readings.