Reviews and Endorsements
for Dragonfly Dreams
“An authentic, engaging, and thought-provoking family tale with an admirably resourceful hero.” --Kirkus Reviews
In this debut YA historical novel, a Chinese American girl and her family must go into hiding following the Japanese invasion of China.
Although she’s always called Nini, the 10-year-old narrator of this story has two given names, Julia and Ju-Lian, reflecting her dual heritage. Her Da is Chinese and her Ma, American. Nini Liu and her family live in a northern port city in China that has several self-contained European districts, which were at first left alone after the 1937 Japanese invasion. But in 1941, as the tale begins, the Japanese occupy Nini’s city. All foreigners, including Ma, are considered enemy aliens and must register. Da loses his job and apartment, so the family takes shelter with an older friend. Now separated, Nini and her best friend, Chiyoko, find a place to leave each other messages, but reaching it is dangerous. When buses start taking foreigners away, Nini and her family flee to a small, isolated house outside the city, where they face many privations. Nini
must make a daring trip into the city to get treatment for her ailing sister, just one of many tests of her courage, determination, and, most of all—by 1945, as the story ends—her hope for the future. Cooper bases her engrossing novel on family history, giving the tale the ring of truth. Despite the dramatic historical events and the family’s suffering, the story avoids histrionics. Nini’s point of view is sensitively rendered, capturing her confusion and worry and making the tale’s impact more powerful. The book also offers compelling reflections on foreignness and racism; a sign at the entrance of Victoria Park in the British district of Nini’s Chinese city reads “NO DOGS OR CHINESE ALLOWED.”
An authentic, engaging, and thought-provoking family tale with an admirably resourceful hero.
-- Kirkus Reviews
A young girl who witnesses the Japanese invasion of China forms the basis for Eleanor McCallie Cooper's mesmerizing new young adult novel, Dragonfly Dreams.
A step back in time to December, 1941, is the setting for the start of Dragonfly Dreams where we meet Nini and her best friend Chiyoko. A dragonfly has landed on Nini's arm and she's about to remove it when Chiyoko stops her. Chiyoko explains that, "...When a dragonfly lands on you, it's good luck. It's a sign that change is coming. You better watch your dreams, Nini."
If only the girls knew just how true that would turn out to be...
Nini lives in a coastal city in China and on the very first page of the story the action begins. Nini and Chiyoko are walking home from school when their path is blocked by Japanese soldiers. The soldiers are cruelly pushing people aside to make room for a fancy car that is moving toward them. When one of the soldiers notices the two girls, Chiyoko is too frightened to move, but Nini grabs her friend and the two manage to slip away.
Once the friends are a safe distance from the commotion, Chiyoko, having been told by her father about the impending Japanese invasion, warns Nini about the dangers that lay ahead. While Chiyoko's father is Japanese, thus likely ensuring her family's relative safety, Nini's mother is American which makes Nini's entire family "the enemy."
Life is about to get very dangerous for Nini and her family.
Before the best friends separate, they agree to pass notes to each other by hiding those notes behind a brick at their secret meeting place. Unfortunately, as time goes by, sharing their lives through their notes gets quite difficult as the Japanese become more entrenched in China.
It isn't long before Nini's world is torn apart. When her father, Da, comes home from work, he explains that his job is in jeopardy. While he is the chief engineer at the local water company, because he is married to an American, his loyalties will be questioned.
And soon soldiers come to their home to take all the furniture, and everything else that has any value. Before long, the family is forced to leave their home and go into hiding to protect Nini's American mother and, in fact, the entire family. Will Nini ever see Chiyoko again? And more importantly, will Nini and her family survive the long occupation by the Japanese?
Based on the true story of the Liu family (the author shares the family's story in her "Author's Note" - it's a fascinating read! - the story of Nini and her family is one that easily draws in the reader.
The brutality of the occupation is handled in a sensitive way but without diminishing the daily struggles so many people experienced during the Japanese occupation.
We witness life through the eyes of Nini as she watches a family friend forced onto a bus with other foreigners (to what fate she can only guess), accompanies her mother to a hotel where she and other foreigners are forced to wear armbands that denote their nationality, as well as attend a new school that is run by the Japanese where Nini is "taught" about the evils of the Americans. As things continue to devolve, readers get a glimpse of the horrors of life during the Japanese occupation of China. And when a typhoid outbreak erupts, the reader starts to wonder if the entire family will survive...
Dragonfly Dreams is an excellent read for young adults who will learn quite a bit, from a young girl and her life in war-torn China.
Quill says: A story that educates as it entertains, and one of those rare reads that will linger in your thoughts long after the last page is read.
--Feathered Quill Reviews
"Many of the obstacles Nini confronts will resonate with children facing adversity and disappointment, whether due to war or other situations. From the beginning, Nini is faced with the challenge of identity: is she Chinese or American? Many classmates at her international school see her as Chinese and thus inferior. One schoolmate, who is also half-Chinese, considers himself to be superior to Nini because he has an American last name. Her friend Chiyoko, who is also half-Chinese, is her ally and best friend. For Nini, her status as American enemy manifests itself in the necessity for Da to destroy all letters from her beloved grandmother in Tennessee. Many children who have experienced pandemic isolation will be able to relate to the burden Nini feels being separated from Chiyoko, but she finds comfort in the dragonfly necklace Chiyoko gave her as a present on what turned out to be their last day of school.
Skillfully woven into the narrative are historical events. Pearl Harbor is the catalyst that sends the family into their uncertain future, and Da explains the Japanese occupation to Nini in the historical context of Pearl Harbor, the Opium Wars, and the Boxer Rebellion. Dragonfly Dreams includes a historical timeline specific to this story, but educators and students alike may find it useful to refer to Asia for Educators’ timeline of Chinese history from 1900 to 1950, including the years of Japanese rule in Tianjin.
-- Review by Anne Prescott
Director of the Five College Center for East Asian Studies in Northhampton, Massachusetts, and a National Director for the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia. She is the editor of East Asia in the World: An Introduction (Routledge, 2015) which won the Buchanan Prize in 2016, and co-author of the curriculum Walking the Tokkaido: A Multidisciplinary Experience in History and Culture, the 2022 Buchanan Prize winner. Her review includes links to useful resources for teachers in earlier editions of Education About Asia, a publication of the Association for Asian Studies.
Dragonfly Dreams is a wonderfully endearing story. So rich in history and culture, it explores a little known time in the European territories of WWII China. More importantly, it reveals the beautiful heart of a special little girl, who along with her family, must survive oppressive humanity by clinging to and living for the best that humanity has to offer. This is superlative storytelling.
- Jeffrey Blount, author of The Emancipation of Evan Walls.
Eleanor Cooper has been thinking for many years about the true story of her Chinese cousin Nini, whose ‘other’-ness is at the heart of this chilling novel set in Japanese-occupied China in the early 1940s. The novel took shape in the author’s mind as Americans were just beginning to think in personal terms about the importance of understanding and valuing people whose lives are different from their own, before empathy had become such an important quality, one that could determine American democracy’s survival. This novel could only have been written by a person of enormous, innate compassion. Its message is essential for people of all ages and races. It will come close to breaking your heart, but you won’t be able to put it down. Dragonfly Dreams is an urgently important and beautiful story.
-Suzanne Fisher Staples, author of Shabanu, Haveli, and Shiva’s Fire
Though John Hersey's slim book, HIROSHIMA, is a giant among works of 20th century nonfiction, few works of fiction have approached the earth-shattering events of August 6, 1945, in a way young readers could grasp. Like Hersey's masterpiece, Eleanor McCallie Cooper's DRAGONFLY DREAMS peers at monumental events through the eyes of a few regular folks at ground-level, in this case a sweet pair of best friends trying to cling to one another through the storms of war. Sensitively told, with a mixed Chinese-American family at its heart, DRAGONFLY DREAMS draws young readers towards perhaps their first inkling of this particular abyss with a light touch and empathetic heart.
-Melissa Fay Greene, Author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing
Focusing on a young Chinese-American girl named Nini, whose life is suddenly turned upside down by the takeover of her hometown in northern China by the Japanese in 1941, Ms. Cooper has crafted an intricate web of emotionally charged stories of courage, hope, and enduring friendship that will lift your spirits even as they expose the realities of wartime occupation and the almost impossible choices faced by individuals in mixed race, international families at the beginning of World War II.
-Jack Maisano, former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and the China Institute in New York, and publisher of The Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly and Asiaweek magazine.
Dragonfly Dreams presents a fictionalized and shorter time period of Nini Liu's life, a young American in China. This can be viewed as a case study of war, of complex relationships between people and countries, people from different nationalities. I can only imagine the conversations between teachers and students, or parents and children, in book groups, about the history of war, disease, hunger, and so much more. This is a very timely study guide for all. As the story ends, I am hopeful that the dragonfly lands on some of us, changing us for the better.
-Lulu Lim Copeland, Executive Director, Tennessee-China Network
I read this book in one sitting on a rainy day. That’s always a good sign for a book. While the story is set within a specific moment of historical turmoil, it is a universal story about family, friendship, hardship, survival, and most importantly to me, it is a testament to the bright, hopeful resilience and strength of youth. Go you young people, GO!
-Douglas McCallie, five-time Emmy nominated Executive Producer and Showrunner of Survivor.
Nini is a Chinese/American girl who narrates the story of her times during the Japanese occupation of China. She is sequestered with her American mother and Chinese father, siblings and family friends, and tells us the big story of war's horrors through many small events. It is a story of resilience and keeping hope alive. I will get copies for my grandchildren. They should know this history. We, adults, should also read this book. It will help us not to repeat our past mistakes.
-Milenko Matanovic, author of Meandering Rivers and Square Tomatoes, The Case for Everyday Democracy
Dragonfly Dreams is a riveting tale from start to finish. The steady suspense ensuing from continual twists and turns easily entices a one-session read.”
-Margaret Schuette, editor of Journey Between Two Worlds, a memoir by Karola M. Schuette
Dragonfly Dreams is a masterfully-written story of WWII like never before, giving a child's intimate look at the injustice and brutality of the Japanese occupation of China and its effects on her Chinese-American family. Readers will share Nini's raw emotions, wanting to kick and scream at the Japanese soldiers just as she does.
– Danielle Koehler, author of The Other Forest
“I can’t wait for my students to read Dragonfly Dreams. It opened my eyes to a new perspective on World War II as I instantly connected with Nini and her family.” -Cindy Gaston, teacher and instructional coach, Hamilton County schools, Tennessee
- Cindy Gaston, Teacher and Instructional Coach, Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee
Dragonfly Dreams is an outstanding YA novel set in mid-20th century China and based upon the author’s family history there. Nini is a delight. She’s brave, loyal, loving, and despite all her hardships, she believes a better future is coming for herself and her family. The dragonfly means change is coming and it also means good luck. Can it be both? Recommended.
-Lynda Durrant, author of My Last Skirt, the Story of Mary Campbell and The Beaded Moccasins