by Ami Polonsky
When young Clara entered the mall on that swelteringly hot day, yearning for the coolness of the air conditioning and something to take her mind off of the loss of her older sister, she didn’t expect to leave feeling changed. After dodging her friend in an attempt to garner some peace and quiet, Clara found herself idly browsing the handbag section of the department store. After plunging her hand into an expensive purse on a whim, she finds a note crumbled in an inside pocket next to a well-worn photograph of another young girl and what appears to be her family.
The note is a desperate and intense plea for help. Yuming lives in China, somewhere in the country outside of Beijing, and her hastily scribbled letter describes a horror. The girl claims to have been kidnapped and put to work in a factory equipped with less-than-savory conditions, and her words implore the reader to help if they can. According to Yuming, there are 22 children working in this particular factory, all of them sewing for more hours a day than they sleep, and all kept in a basement with no windows and little to no food. They are forced to chase rest on concrete floors, huddled together like too many animals in too small a cage. They are threatened, whipped, and degraded.
Clara is no stranger to China, but her view of the country had been much different from what Yuming has described. Clara has seen China in its glory — all fancy hotels and well-laid dinner tables. Her older sister, the beautiful and sassy Lola, hailed from China. She’d been left in a basket as a newborn baby and subsequently adopted into Clara’s family the same week that Clara was born weeks early. The girls had grown up side by side, as close as any blood sisters could ever be, and the loss felt now that Lola has passed away is so acute that Clara can barely get through the day. The cancer came back and it came back quick, snuffing out the life inside of Lola like so many blown out candles on a birthday cake.
So when Clara sees an opportunity to do something for a young girl in China, she also sees in it a chance to help her sister. Where Clara couldn’t beat the cancer that riddled Lola’s body in its cruel and unusual way, she can perhaps rescue Yuming from this horrific situation, and pay tribute to her sister in the process. Spurred onward by a realistic apparition of her younger sister, Clara begins to make plans.
After convincing her parents to travel back to China in search of closure and redemption, Clara plots and schemes her way into the countryside of North Beijing, searching for a pink factory with a basement full of children. In it, she hopes to find Yuming and reunite the girl with the family smiling up at her from the crinkled photograph. Clara feels a unique kinship with the girl she’s never met, and is determined to bring about a happy ending.
But as Clara is making her way to the other side of the world and dodging tourists along the Great Wall, Yuming has a plan of her own. Along with a couple of pickpockets and another girl from the factory, they’ve fled the dangerous claws of their captor and are on a race against time and space as they try and make their way home. Not accustomed to life on the streets, Yuming has to think quickly on her feet, never knowing who to trust or who to rely on. The man who kidnapped her and imprisoned her against her will is literally lurking around every corner, doing his best to catch her and throw her back in the dungeon-esque sewing room back at the factory. But as Yuming begins to see things for the reality that they are and learns to believe in her instincts, she will become stronger and braver than she ever thought possible.
Threads is the second novel by Ami Polonsky, an author best known for her widely successful and critically acclaimed novel about a girl trying to break free from a boy’s body, Gracefully Grayson. Geared towards the mid-grade reader, Threads is a perfect mixture of allowing one’s intuition to guide them, doing the right thing, handling loss, and taking a measured risk. While the subject matter is a very real device of malicious intent in today’s age and time, it is not too mature for readers in this genre and is in fact an educational resource. The two characters of Clara and Yuming are richly drawn, and their parallel storylines are heartbreakingly beautiful. Paired with a nefarious and unsettling slew of villains and a couple of understanding parents, the story is rounded out with supporting characters who are just as real and important as the main ones.
Giving the short novel 4.5 out of 5 stars as a rating, I recommend it to readers ages 10+ and any teacher/librarian looking to add something substantial to their classroom or library. As far as cultural diversity goes, Threads is a well-thought out attempt at bridging a careful gap. I recommend it to readers who have enjoyed books like The Bone Sparrow or When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.