The Garden of Empress Cassia






Teachers’ notes 1

Teachers’ notes 2

The Background

The Garden of Empress Cassia is loosely based on my childhood. Like Mimi, I lived on top of a shop and loved to draw. And like Mimi, I felt ashamed of being Chinese.

The idea for the book started out as a dream. When I woke up I wrote my dream down and as I wrote, memories of my childhood came flooding back to me. I remembered my mother’s gold lacquer box where she used to keep her pearls, and I remembered the shop we used to live in, filled with fascinating things from China – finely embroidered white handkerchiefs, miniature carved cork landscapes, embroidered slippers, laughing Buddhas. In between customers, my mother would sit in the corner, the gold lacquer box the size of a biscuit tin on her lap, threading pearls to make necklaces. It was a very clever box. The wooden walls slid in and out of each other so that you could make the compartments any size you wanted. One compartment held glistening white pearls, another fine silk thread, and another, little gold coils for attaching the clasps. On the lid of the box was carved a lake with willows, bridges and pavilions. For me it was a magic box.

The possibility of being transported inside a picture came to me one stormy evening when I was nineteen. I had just finished a day at art school and was invited to stay the weekend at a friend’s holiday house near Wilson’s Promontory. She was already there, so I had to make the two-hour journey alone. By the time I arrived, it was dark and pouring with rain.

The house was at the end of a muddy road surrounded by dense scrub. There was a note pinned to the front door: Gone to the store. Back in 5 minutes. I let myself in and sat down at the kitchen table tapping my fingers while I gazed at a rather pleasant painting on the wall. The scene was an English cottage with a kindly lady standing at the gate waving. But as I stared at the picture, I felt strangely drawn to it.

I stood up to take a closer look when suddenly I realised it was me the lady was waving at and she was inviting me to be in the picture with her! I felt that all I had to do was to let my mind go. Realising the danger, I quickly turned away. I have never forgotten that strange night which still leaves me with a cold shiver.


“Asian exoticism infuses the text with spice and variety. Descriptions are fresh and poetic. This debut novel from Chinese-Australian illustrator and teacher Gabrielle Wang is a gentle fantasy/adventure that also succeeds as a depiction of what it’s like to grow up between cultures.”~ Australian Book Seller and Publisher

“The text is simple but studded with original imagery, so that even slow readers are guided into new language experiences. The novel’s great strength is its characterisation.”~ Magpies

“A complex interplay of teacher, friends, family and cultural factors combine in an engaging story, about a girl, with a Chinese background, who is bullied.”~ Australian Family Therapists

“I would love for you to pass on my comments and congratulations on a fabulous novel to Gabrielle. I read “The Garden of Empress Cassia” and personally connected with Mimi. I too came from another country and desperately wanted to be Australian. Like with Mimi, it took friends like Josh and Miss O’Dell to show me that the food, culture and my family should be valued and appreciated for their uniqueness. I also read this with a group of reluctant readers this year who loved the imagery and the discussion this book generated.”~ Teacher’s Comment

“This book is intriguing from the first page. This book is beautifully written. I would say it is one of the best books I have ever read.”~ Ash, aged 13

“I love to read and I think that The Garden of Empress Cassia is by far the best book I’ve read. I liked how you used different words instead of just using the same word over and over again. We have started to read The Pearl of Tiger Bay, it is really interesting. I hope you keep on making books so I can keep on reading them.”~ Renee Grade 5

“Such a beautiful day, sun shining. Almost to good to be true! As I reached the library entrance I’m quickly snapped out of my daydream. The librarian looked at me frantically. Sweetie you have to get out of here, there’s a tidal wave coming. I ran to the third isle, middle shelf, fourth book along, exactly where my favourite book is kept The Garden of Empress Cassia by Gabrielle Wang. I remember the magical feel of the cover, touching it sends shivers down my spine. Once you open the cover you can’t put it down. It entices you in its mysterious, magical way. The author describes Mimi’s drawings with such detail and beauty. Its descriptive words give you a clear image of what the drawings look like. There it is! I clutch the book tightly and run out of the place. Mum and Dad are waiting from me.”~ Hamilton, Age 15


THE GARDEN OF EMPRESS CASSIA can be purchased online or at your local Australian bookshop