In English and Chinese, 'Sister Detectives' solve an ice cream mystery
On a late afternoon in Hadley, Massachusetts, a small crowd of kids and their grown-ups are in the children's room at the public library, listening to sixth grader Emma Barrett and Belley Barrett, in second grade, read from their new, bilingual book, “Sister Detectives.”
The two sisters illustrated and wrote the Chinese and English story. The girls, dressed as matching sleuths in houndstooth capes and caps, began to read. Emma took the lead on the English, Belley read in Chinese.
“For hobbies, Belley and I are little detectives who solve cases when we are not busy doing schoolwork,” Emma read in English.
“我們的愛好是當個小偵探， 在課余閑暇解決棘手案件,” Belley read in Chinese.
The tale is about two sisters (who the authors named after themselves) hired to find the thief who stole all the strawberry ice cream bars from the Neverending Ice Cream Store.
Along the way, they find clues: animal paw prints.
“Belley takes out her magnifying glass. Strawberry ice cream covers some of the prints,” read Emma.
“德怡拿出她的放大鏡。發現少許草莓冰淇淋覆蓋在一些印記上,” read Belley.
Emma, Belley and their parents live in Orange, Massachusetts, and the girls attend the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley. Over the last few months, they read at several area libraries.
According to their mother, Cindy Liu Barrett, the book came out of a desire for bilingual children's books in both languages. She couldn’t find them during the pandemic, so she encouraged her young daughters to write one.
“This was a three-year project,” Barrett told the group. “It actually started in 2020 when … Emma and Belley had spent a lot of time in the basement. They were playing detectives.”
Emma had recently written an essay about a couple of sister detectives. Barrett got thinking: How about a project, a bilingual book written and illustrated by children — her children!
They’re big readers and were excited, Barrett said.
The book became a multi-generational production, involving the girls’ grandmother, Yen Liu, who translates for patients at Baystate Hospital in Springfield.
“It's really powerful that my mom was able to be involved, and then she was very excited to help translate the book," Barrett said.
Barrett’s parents came to the U.S. from Taiwan and she grew up in Chicopee, bilingual. One of just a handful of Chinese students in her grade, she said. But her parents made sure to speak Chinese to their kids from early on. If she hadn't learned the language then, she said, it wouldn't have stuck.
“My parents inspired me to continue learning Chinese and to be proud of my culture, Barrett said, “maybe because they took me back to Taiwan."
In 2022, Barrett and her husband took their own kids to Taiwan. It was a dream, Barrett said, and their daughters had no problem speaking with relatives.
“It was like they belonged there. That's what we wanted, like to feel they belong in American and Chinese culture,” Barrett said.
Two versions of "Sister Detectives" were printed, each with a different type of Chinese characters, said Marica Gagliardi, the book's publisher and owner of Haley's Books in Athol.
“The simplified version is what is used in now, China, and Taiwan still prefers the traditional Chinese,” Gagliardi explained.
In both versions of the book, each page features a line of English, a line of Chinese, and a way for readers who don’t speak Chinese to find their way.
“A third line of transliteration [is at the bottom], which is how to pronounce the Chinese words, and that is called Pinyin,” Gagliardi said.
Each page also has an illustration of the sisters in action, the owners of the ice cream store, or the thieves. That part took took the girls about a year, their mother said.
At the reading in Hadley, someone (a grown up) asked the girls what it was like to work together.
“Well, sometimes our mom would have to settle the argument and make the decision,” Emma said.
One thing Emma and Belley agreed on was the book’s genre.
“I think mysteries are really interesting because sometimes plain books do get a little bit boring," Emma said.
“Mysteries keep you on edge, to make you want more,” Belley said.
Their first book has a dedication in that spirit. Written in two languages, of course.
"For little detectives everywhere.
gěi shìshàng měi yīgè xiǎoxiǎo zhēntàn"