Young Fu was another one of those Newbery medal winners I had never heard of prior to picking it up, but afterwards was surprised I hadn't.
Living in turbulent and morphing 1920s China, thirteen-year-old Young Fu is employed as an apprentice to a talented coppersmith. As a novice, he soon learns he has to fight his way to the top as an aspiring artisan, through the steps and stairs of Chinese tradition, while in the background his country struggles with Western influence.
This latter aspect is what has dropped Young Fu off most recommendation lists. Most negative reviewers will tell you that the book was obviously written by a Westerner, as the sporadic Western characters mentioned in Young Fu are all sympathetic, and those against Western ideals are unsympathetic and often labeled as foolish.
While this is true in some ways, I found the book barely focused on political correctness, and because of that I didn't have as much of an issue with it as some others. The main character does briefly experience both sides of the Western influence, and over time concludes, while they are strange, that he admires some aspects of Western civilization. But this is thrown much in the shadow of Young Fu's personal development and experiences.
The best way I can describe this novel, which due to reading level and the main character's age is probably better qualified as a Young Adult historical, is Chinese Johnny Tremain. There's a number of big similarities: the main character is an arrogant teenager who works metal and argues with his pranking co-apprentices, and over time becomes humbler and heroic. The story is episodic, the setting is emphasized, and the political upheaval is hidden behind the veil of personal development and relationships over several years (the main character is 18-years-old by the close of the story, which is a longer time frame than Johnny Tremain, but the flow of time and narrative is similar).
As a big Johnny Tremain fan, I enjoyed Young Fu a lot. It does get a little long in places, but as a sucker for unusual historical settings, I didn't mind in the least.
Rating: Four stars
Favorite Character: Lu
Favorite quote: "No task which a man puts his heart into is too bad. For the lazy, all work is difficult."
Recommended age: advanced 10+ (this is more YA due to narrative level and the character's age than content/topic/themes)
Content level for parents: Robbers attack a child, different characters steal (but later confess and apologize), a building burns, skirmishes are elaborated on by word of mouth
For more Marvelous Middle Grade reviews, check out Shannon's blog here.