Friday, February 12, 2010


SHINING STAR: THE ANNA MAY WONG STORY by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang (Lee & Low)
To escape taunting at school and the workaday world of the laundry, young Anna May Wong hides out in the movie theater and hangs out on sets in Los Angeles. Wong's allure and diligence eventually earn her roles in moving pictures, but in the 1930's, are they the kind of parts that would allow her to hold her head high? With studios forbidding mixed-race love scenes and perpetuating stereotypes, it seems Wong can only go so far within her industry, but after a visit to China and some hard contemplation, she manages to go one step further. This well-paced picture book biography allows the reader to put Wong's choices into the context of her time, and attractive, realistic paintings underscore scenes from Wong's journey of discovery of her own identity as a Chinese-American. Besides being a very thoughtful introduction to a unique figure from Hollywood heritage, like any solid picture book biography, it can be used across grade levels, and is sure to incite discussion. What makes someone an American? What stands in the way of individual contribution? Some of the heartbreaking limitations put upon Wong (also put upon African-Americans and other people of color at that time and for many generations to follow) seem so unnecessary, intolerant and unduly cruel to us today, a source of embarrassment. It begs another question: what limitations do we put on people now that might seem silly tomorrow? (7 and up)

Also of interest:
Did you know, February 14th starts the Year of the Tiger? Gung hay fat tsai! Happy Chinese New Year (and Lunar New Year for many other Asian cultures)! This is an exciting, hopeful, vibrant time of year, so use books to join in the celebration! Click here for a list of over 25 classic Chinese New Year picture books (plus Chinese Zodiac Horoscopes for'll let me know if they are on the money, or the red envelope, as the case may be!), or use the bibliography in the article I did a few years back for the Teachers.Net Gazette, "Dim Sum and Then Some: Discovering China with Children's Books." But a New Year deserves some brand new books, so check out these recent picks with a Chinese flavor!:

THE SEEING STICK by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini (RP Kids) A reissue from 1977, gorgeous flowing watercolor illustrations in the spirit of Lisbeth Zwerger revive this reissue from 1977. The emperor offers a bag of jewels to the one who can help his blind, beautiful daughter Hwei Ming to see. Though word is sent for miles around Peking, but all who attempt the task fail. At last, an old man appears who shares Hwei Ming's condition, and teaches her view the world through her hands instead of her eyes. As the old man deftly weaves his story, we sense another master folklorist at work in the author, and themes of empathy and valuing the contribution of elders stand out. Some may find distracting that several pages have high-gloss accents; they are not textural enough to contribute to the story in the way that works for, say, Menena Cottin's BLACK BOOK OF COLORS (a nice book to read in combination with this one, incidentally), and the pictures are perfectly accomplished without any help, but they do make the pages look snazzy. Definitely worth a look-see. (6 and up)

TOFU QUILT by Ching Yeung Russell (Lee & Low)

Mr. Yim roars, / "Yeung Ying! / Why do you write about things / you know nothing of? / Why don't you write about/ what you know best? / You only deserve a forty. / It's the lowest grade I have ever/ given a student!" / Now / I know / I can only be / a saleslady, selling handbags, / after all.

Yeung Yim aspires to becoming a writer so accomplished that she can dine on the delicious custard, dan lai, whenever she pleases. But as a girl in 1960's Hong Kong, where educational opportunity is the exception rather than the rule, this is easier said than done. As the bright daughter of a poor tailor, she needs the support of her high-spirited mother, the practice afforded by family members who needs letters written and read, and most of all, a strong inner voice that finds a way to say "can do!" against all odds. An affecting author's note explains how the story told in this free verse is a very personal one, yet many creative children who have hurdles to clear will recognize themselves in these pages. This gracefully executed narrative taps into very real feelings of highs and lows of a child exploring a dream, and the little bits and pieces of everyday life that get quilted together to make us who we are. (8 and up)

HAPPY BELLY, HAPPY SMILE by Rachel Isadora (Harcourt) If you are a fan of Chinese food, be sure to join Louie for dinner at his Grandpa Sam's restaurant where readers get a tour of the kitchen before joining the festivities at the table. This book feels modern (gotta love the hipster delivery guy!) and has a very culturally inclusive spirit, with all races enjoying (and some less adventurous young palates refusing) the delicacies. Lanterns, dragons, take-out containers, fu-dogs, pots and pans and bits of real Chinese take-out menus worked into the collage create busy, cozy, colorful pages. Less detailed than Ted Lewin's tribute BIG JIMMY'S KUM KAU CHINESE TAKE-OUT, pair with Grace Lin's FORTUNE COOKIE FORTUNES for a primary level culinary foray. This book delivers. (4 and up)

Mmm. That last book put me in the mood for some mushroom fried rice with black bean garlic sauce from China Ling, the neighborhood take-out we refer to locally simply as "Nice Lady," because the woman at the counter is so kind. For many Americans, so many positive connections to cultures are made through food (whether the cuisine is perfectly authentic or not), as suggested by Jennifer 8. Lee, author of the fun grown-up book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Do you have a favorite Chinese restaurant? What dish do you like to order? Remember to wish your friends there "gung hay fat choy," good luck, health and prosperity...and I wish the same to you!

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1 comment:

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

Congratulations, Esme! Your blog has won a Sunshine Award for all you do to promote chlidren's literature. You can learn more about this award at


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