Jean Kwok

If you thought your middle-school years were tough, consider this mortifying incident from Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation (Riverhead, $15). Eleven-year-old Kimberly Chang, newly emigrated from Hong Kong to New York City with her single mother, musters up the nerve to ask her teacher for an eraser in her still-shaky English. “Excuse me, sir,” she says in front of her entire class. “May I borrow a rubber?” And, really, the language barrier is the least of Kimberly’s troubles. New in paperback, Girl details her double life as an adolescent. By day, she's a schoolgirl trying to make friends and straight A's. In the dark, secret night, she's a Chinatown sweatshop worker struggling to help her mother pay for their rat- and roach-infested apartment. When inspectors come to the garment factory, Kimberly and other underage child-workers are herded into the men’s bathroom to hide. Such scenes are based on Kwok's own life: She also worked in a sweatshop, also became an academic star (earning degrees from Harvard and Columbia). And now, equally against-all-odds, she's become a bestselling novelist. ERIN K. THOMPSON

Sun., May 8, 2 p.m., 2011

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