As soon as I finished reading The Garden of Empress Cassia by Gabrielle Wang, I was seriously tempted to turn back to the first page and read it all over again.
I liked it that much.
But I had appointments to keep and a review to write, so my rereading will have to wait.
Before delving into the story, let’s get the basic description out of the way: it’s a chapter book of 112 pages that’s suggested for elementary to middle school children between the ages of 8 and 12. Of course, I’m in my thirties and really enjoyed it, so I’d say you could push that age limit out a bit, even if it is targeted to kids.
The story is about a Chinese-Australian named Mimi Lu. Her parents own an herbal shop and insist that Mimi be proud of her Chinese heritage, but Mimi just wishes she could blend in with everyone else. Wishes she could be “normal.” To make matters worse, her father doesn’t want her to pursue her love of art, and she’s being bullied at school.
Another prominent character is Mimi’s art teacher, Miss O’Dell. Miss O’Dell is an Irish-Australian that is a kind, calming, and somewhat enlightening presence throughout the story. She’s also the one who gives Mimi the gift of the magical pastels.
These pastels allow Mimi to draw the ancient garden of Empress Cassia, and the magic in them transports people into her drawings, much like the chalk drawings in Mary Poppins. The garden is a place of healing and inspiration, and it’s beautiful.
The reason we know the garden is so beautiful is because the imagery in the story is so vivid and alive. It’s really one of my favorite things about the book. The writing is so fluid and transportive that the scenes come to life in a natural way that leaves the reader feeling as though they’re experiencing what Mimi is experiencing.
But just in case you can’t quite imagine it for yourself without any help, there’s also a gorgeous illustration of a map of the garden in the back of the book.
My other favorite thing about this book is the strong moral story. It’s not shoved at you or anything, but it’s potent. First of all, Mimi is truly goodhearted. Even when the bully steals Mimi’s cherished gift, Mimi truly worries for the other girl’s safety. And when Mimi questions whether or not she’s actually a good person and deserving of the pastels, the wise old man in the tale helps her distinguish between someone who’s good but occasionally acts naughty and someone who is actually a bad person.
It even ends with showing that Mimi doesn’t really need the magic pastels to make magical pictures. As an artist, she already has this vibrant magic in her heart. And kind of like Dumbo learning he doesn’t need his feather to fly, it allows kids to see that maybe – just maybe – they already are special.
Overall, I feel Mimi is an excellent roll model, and I not only feel comfortable offering this book to my own children when they’re older (they’re in preschool now), I want to encourage it.
This tale is about following your dreams and passions, about being strong and confident in the face of meanness and adversity, and about embracing who you are.
The Garden of Empress Cassia is a story you shouldn’t miss.
Awards for The Garden of Empress Cassia
- CBCA Notable Children’s Book of the Year
- Aurealis Award Winner
- Shortlist, Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards
- USBBY Outstanding International Booklist
Unfortunately, you can no longer purchase the U.S. edition from my Usborne Books & More website, but you can still (yay!) find copies of the book on Amazon.
Similar books, with recommended ages ranging from 8 to 12: