Synopsis: Packed with humor and heart, this debut middle grade series follows a girl finding her place in a brand-new world of private school and frenemies when her family moves to Hong Kong.
Taiwanese Canadian Holly-Mei Jones couldn’t be more excited about moving to Hong Kong for her mother’s job. Her new school is right on the beach and her family’s apartment is beyond beautiful. Everything is going to be perfect . . . right?
Maybe not. It feels like everywhere she turns, there are new rules to follow and expectations to meet. On top of that, the most popular girl in her grade is quickly becoming a frenemy. And without the guidance of her loving Ah-ma, who stayed behind in Toronto, Holly-Mei just can’t seem to get it right.
It will take all of Holly-Mei’s determination and sparkle (and maybe even a tiny bit of stubbornness) to get through seventh grade and turn her life in Hong Kong into the ultimate adventure!
Editor’s Review: As an adult reader in her mid-twenties, I would describe “The Not-So-Uniform Life of Holly-Mei” as reminiscent of Lisi Harrison’s iconic The Clique middle grade series paired with the best elements of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. The former because the Holly-Mei series so empathetically captures the ins, outs, and contours of preteen friendship; the latter for the thoughtful consideration of class, race, and history in a Trojan horse of sumptuous details evoking luxury, opulence, and decadence.
The opening scenes of Holly-Mei depict a protagonist after my own heart: she is an earnest girl whose impulse for justice and fairness have cost her the goodwill of her peers. She insists on doing the right thing, no matter the consequences – though she rightfully and relatably struggles to bear the costs. I also loved the rich details that place Holly-Mei in proximity to a local Taiwanese association: at a Chinese restaurant, she runs into an older couple who fawn over how much she’s grown and how beautiful they are. Her mother counters in a “cultural verbal dance,” clucking humbly that her own daughters are just average and now as intelligent as the couple’s own granddaughters. “It’s as if a compliment is some sort of booby prize,” Holly-Mei muses, “and no one wants to be left holding it.”
The premise of the first book is that Holly-Mei and her younger sister Millie are uprooted from their hometown in Toronto when their mother is promoted to work in Hong Kong (first off – love that mama is the powerhouse of the family); within weeks, they relocate to a new cosmopolitan city and enroll in an elite, exclusive private school where both parents and daughters are expected to network and establish guanxi, or useful connections. Their privileges as well-off expatriates do not undermine their sincerity, and in fact each of the adolescents in Holly-Mei’s new social circle earns my sympathy and concern.
I was so excited to chat with author Christina Matula about the series and the luminous stories she’s offered the world.
Chen: So tell me about the vision for the trilogy!
Matula: All three of the Holly-Mei books take place over the Grade 7 year at Tai Tam Prep. The second book, The Not-So-Perfect Plan, came out this past April. It’s about how Holly-Mei, now settled in Hong Kong, deals with bumps in her new friendships and her own need to succeed. Holly-Mei wants her friend group to gel a bit more so she convinces them to join her in an inter-school tournament. Meanwhile her friends and her little sister are all shining in their own activities, so Holly-Mei becomes determined to win the competition, even though her push to win is starting to push her friends away.
Chen: I heard Holly-Mei’s next adventure will take her to Taiwan.
Matula: Yes! The third book, The Not-So-Simple Question, comes out in April 2024. It will delve into Holly-Mei’s Taiwanese heritage and what it means to her to be mixed-race. She and a group of students will go on school trip to Taiwan (Taipei 101 features on the cover), where she’ll get to visit relatives and her Ah-ma’s childhood home. The home is based on my own mother’s house on the outskirts of Tainan. In the book, Holly-Mei also struggles with peer pressure to date, which she’s not ready for. Twelve can be such a complicated age.
Chen: Twelve was also the age I became a more serious reader. I would have loved to read the Holly-Mei series growing up – it’s such a beautiful contribution to the canon of girlhood. I am also always interested in how complex historical narratives can become meaningfully incorporated into fiction, a feat that would seem especially challenging in middle grade fiction. You do this beautifully, tending to Hong Kong’s history as a former colony with so much nuance. The preteens visit the Hong Kong Museum of History, where details like Hakka farmhouses, prominent British families, and Chinese men in Western dress conjure a truly multicultural, though complex and imbalanced, community. One of Holly-Mei’s new friends, Dev Singh, even champions a photography exhibit featuring the Indian diaspora in Hong Kong.
Matula: Each book also features a different cultural tradition based on the season in which it takes place – Mid-Autumn Festival, Lunar New Year, and the Dragon Boat Festival. It was important for me to highlight and introduce them to readers who might not be familiar with the festivals, because they are such wonderful traditions for me and my family.
Chen: In your Author’s Note, you write: “My sister and I were the only mixed cousins and there were very few mixed-race kids in our community growing up. Luckily, I was rarely made to feel embarrassed by or self-conscious about my heritage…. At home, I had two distinct cultures to call my own, with their interesting histories, colorful customs, and delicious foods.” Tell us more about what you wanted to share about your heritage in this series.
Matula: When I decided to write the first book, I made a list of all the places that I loved to go, foods I loved to eat, and things I loved to do in Hong Kong, and I tried to include all of them over the three books. Some of my favourite memories that weren’t included in the book, but are very special to me, are the years I spent studying Chinese language at the University of Hong Kong. Because of my Taiwanese background, I decided to study Mandarin, even though the local language is Cantonese. Learning Mandarin was always a personal goal of mine – growing up not speaking it always made me feel a little less than my full-Taiwanese cousins in Canada and the US, even though it turns out that most of them are not even close to fluent. I remember one teacher at HKU particularly fondly, Feng Laoshi, who was originally from Taiwan. Learning the language really helped me feel closer to my own heritage and to the fabric and culture of Hong Kong. And it was what drove my passion to start writing and sharing stories that include elements of Chinese culture.
Chen: Holly-Mei’s experiences also actually mirror yours – you grew up in Ottawa and moved to Hong Kong! What would preteen-you have thought of Holly-Mei? What kind of friendship would you two have had?
Matula: I think twelve-year-old me and Holly-Mei would have been good friends – we both like rules, are sporty, and are open to trying new things. But I also think they would have had some clashes because our flaws are similar – we are both a bit impulsive and are sometimes overly competitive. And they could bond (or commiserate) over having a loving but complicated relationship with their younger sister (love you, Natalie!)