Tea with Milk, by Allen Say, is a touching story of independence and transformation. A little girl is born and raised just outside of San Francisco, at the turn of the 20th century, by Japanese parents. Growing up in the United States, she balances two identities: Masako to her parents, and May to everyone else. Through breakfasts at the homes of friends, she acquire a taste for “tea with milk and sugar,” in contrast with the “plain green tea” available to her at home. From her window, May looks to San Francisco has a place of dreams, and awaits the day when her father will take her there as promised.
But following May’s graduation from high school, her parents decide to return to Japan, and May is thrown into a vastly different world. Masako—as she is now known by everyone—struggles to make sense of these changes, particularly the strong social expectations for her to adopt a traditional female persona. Unwilling to accept this as her fate, however, May walks away from her parents and their expectations. She heads to the cosmopolitan city of Osaka, and begins a life that sees her transform into a poised, fulfilled woman.
While the text in this story is geared towards older children (perhaps 6 years+), my toddler adores the book nonetheless. To date, my husband and I compensate by telling her the story according to the illustrations, which take May from childhood to marriage. The gorgeous illustrations also lend themselves well to chats about multiculturalism as well as the past, which are concepts of increasing interest to my daughter. Altogether, the real-world anchoring of this story (which is actually the story of Say’s mother!) proves a nice contrast to the animal adventures regularly occurring in our family reading.