Meo and Be

Meo and Be
Publisher Name
Lee & Low Books
Age Range
Release Date
May 23, 2023
Eleven-year-old Bé hasn't spoken a word since her mother left. She hangs on to the hope that one day they will be reunited, but after two years of waiting, it's becoming more difficult. Her father--who is now frail and helpless after a stroke--can do little to protect her from her stepmother, Big Mother, who treats Bé like an animal and a servant. Thankfully, Bè has a secret friend, her little kitten Mèo, to comfort her in the worst of times. Maybe if she just steers clear of Big Mother and is obedient, everything will be okay.

Unfortunately, Big Mother has other plans. She accuses her of stealing, and Bé is drugged and sold. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a locked underground bunker being held captive with a group of young women. Bé is too young to understand why they're prisoners, but at least she still has Mèo! He was hiding in her shirt when she was taken. As weeks pass, Bé makes a friend her own age, Ngân, even without speaking, and Mèo becomes a solace for the women--being available for cuddles and catching the mice that annoy them.

Suddenly, a violent uprising enables the imprisoned women and girls to escape, only to realize the wider world of war is just as dangerous. Can Bé and Mèo, and their newfound friend, Ngân, find their way to a safe place they can call home--even though the world is literally exploding all around them?

Editor review

1 review
A powerfully emotional tale
Overall rating
Writing Style
Illustrations/Photos (if applicable)
What worked:
The setting is unusual for a middle-grade novel as it takes place in 1962 Vietnam. It’s seven years into the Vietnam War and the threat of a Viet Cong attack is always in the background. It’s normal to see armed soldiers patrolling the streets. The author includes many cultural details of that time including the possibility of a father having two wives. A glossary is provided at the front of the book to help readers understand any unfamiliar vocabulary they can’t figure out when using the context. The author says she wants to present South Vietnam before American soldiers arrived and the plot doesn’t directly describe the war with North Vietnam. Most books about this region of the world include America’s role in the conflict so it’s appropriate for this book to focus on the people who lived there.
Thuong is the epitome of an underdog character. She learns that her father has a second family and she’s forced to move with her mother into his other home. Thuong’s stepmother has a reputation in the village for being an angry, loud woman and Thuong immediately learns that first-hand. The woman demands Thuong change her name and forbids her youngest son from playing with Be. Be finds comfort from her grandmother but soon loses that support when her grandmother dies. Things go downhill from there and readers will hope that Be can find even the smallest positive moments in her life. It’s disturbing to note that many of the traumatic events described are based on stories the author heard from her family members.
The author tenderly develops a wide range of emotions although many of them are not happy. Her stepmother causes most of Be’s sadness due to her repulsion and anger toward her husband’s second family. Be tries to avoid the woman as best she can and she stays close to possible protectors when near her stepmother. Be’s sadness turns to misery following her mother’s absence and her father’s illness and then the author chooses to make things even worse. Be no longer speaks and she’s sold into slavery by her stepmother. Glimmers of hope and glee are provided throughout the book with Be’s youngest stepbrother being the first. However, the relationship has ups and downs. Be’s most loyal friend is a kitten named Meo and he never leaves Be’s side. Finally, Be meets another prisoner about her age and it seems as though their friendship is the only thing allowing them to survive.
What didn’t work as well:
The upbeat moments in the book are few and far between so it creates a depressing tone for readers. However, it’s based on reality and this was not a feel-good time in South Vietnam’s history. It’s an appropriate tone for the subject matter.
The final verdict:
Readers will root for Be during her journey to find happiness and they’ll become emotionally invested in her struggles. I recommend you give this book a shot.
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