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Jessica Lee
Can We Be Friends?
Jessica Lee, author
In this unique bilingual children's picture book, Leon is an excitable and lively five-year-old. Leon has an adorable pet guinea pig named Panda. However, Panda doesn't like some of the ways Leon plays with her, and she is often afraid to play with Leon. Panda's rejection makes Leon sad and frustrated. He really wants to be Panda's friend and play games with her! This playful story is a great way to create important discussions with children ages 2-8 about why they should play nicely with their pets. The colorful book includes both English and Chinese text: Which is perfect for parents, teachers, and caregivers with kids interested in integrating Chinese language into a child's growing linguistic skills or honing their existing Chinese linguistic skills. Additionally, the Chinese text is Romanized so parents can read it to their children even if they are non-fluent speakers.
Leon, an energetic five-year-old kindergartner, has an adorable pet guinea pig named Panda–and he is determined to make Panda his best friend, despite what the sensitive and jumpy pet may want. The two of them enjoy each other’s company dancing and playing, but when he gets too rowdy for the guinea pig, Leon faces rejection and the challenging emotions that go along with it. As he tries to come to terms with Panda’s reserved nature, Leon suddenly discovers the little rascal has escaped from her cage, and a hilarious game of hide and seek ensues–with Leon pulling out all the stops to corral Panda back to safety.

Writer and illustrator Lee’s endearing debut, dedicated to her son, is bilingual, with a Chinese translation of the story running alongside the English text. Her polychromatic illustrations burst with energy and character, illuminating funny moments in the narrative, such as Panda’s irritation when Leon “put[s] her in a bucket,” or her crafty hiding spot behind a toy car. Lee’s exploration of oppressive emotions is noteworthy, and when Leon expresses his anger, sadness, and all-around distress at Panda’s rebuffs, younger readers will immediately empathize. The parallels between learning how to interact with a pet and developing positive friendships with people add another layer of meaning to Lee’s educational tale.

While these lessons cover valuable (if familiar ground) Lee incorporates cultural awareness in a fun, easy way for all audiences to understand–and offers young readers a chance to pick up some new words while enjoying the story. Adult readers will appreciate the romanized version of Chinese in addition to traditional characters, and young readers will be smitten with the quirky black-and-white Panda and her comical reactions to Leon’s attempts to play. The ambiguous ending will leave readers wanting to know more about this entertaining duo.

Takeaway: A valuable story of consideration for others—including a charming guinea pig—told in English and Chinese.

Great for fans of: Mo Willems’s My Friend Is Sad, Jenny Offill’s Sparky!.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A-
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B