Asian American Literature Fans - Megareview for September 2, 2012

Asian American Literature Fans - Megareview for September 2, 2012

A Review of Janet S. Wong’s Buzz (with illustrations by Margaret Chodos-Irvine) (Sandpiper 2002); Haemi Bulgassi’s Peacebound Trains (with illustrations by Chris K. Sontpiet) (Sandpiper 2000); Ginnie Lo’s Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic (with illustrations by Beth Lo) (Lee & Low Books, 2012); Paul Yee’s The Jade Necklace (with illustrations by Grace Lin) (Tradewind Books, 2002); Paula Yoo’s Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story (with illustrations by Dom Lee) (Lee & Low Books, 2010); Ken Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us (with illustrations by Dom Lee) (Lee & Low Books, 1995); Alan Woo’s Maggie’s Chopsticks (with illustrations by Isabelle Malenfant) (Kids Can Press, 2012)

Janet S. Wong’s Buzz was a delight to read for the simple fact that she takes on the fun premise of a child who is learning about all the different things that make buzzing sounds, especially things around the house. The children’s picture book takes us through the child’s perspective as he hears things like doorbells, hairdryers, and other such modern devices that make the appropriate noise. I can see this book being read to a kindergarten audience, especially with student interaction, with the children yelling merrily out “buzz.” Haha! Again, as with other picture books, race remains unremarked though there is attention to color and shading, so given my scholarly background I can’t help but wondering about what goes into the decision about how to represent particular characters or families.

Haemi Balgussi’s Peacebound Trains is aimed at slightly older audiences—I would imagine around 7 or 8—given the amount of text that appears per page. It reminds me of Susan Miho Nunes’s The Last Dragon in that regard and coincidentally, Chris K. Sontpiet is also the illustrator for this work. Peacebound Trains takes on a difficult topic of a Korean American immigrant family who is struggling to make ends meet after the father and breadwinner dies. A young girl laments the fact that her mother is away with the army, trying to get the funds to jumpstart her own education. The young girl is comforted by the sound of trains outside, which allows her grandmother to tell her the story of her own troubling adulthood which saw her flee southward along the Korean peninsula during the Korean conflict. The grandmother is able to connect with her young granddaughter through the theme of rupture. Indeed, the grandmother tells her about the loss of her husband, who pushed her to leave on a “peacebound train” while he stayed behind to fight for the South Korean forces. He was never heard from again. The weighty topic here might be a stretch for young audiences, but the story’s historical texture is particularly impressive and brought to life through Sontpiet’s wonderful illustrations.

In Ginnie Lo’s autobiographical picture book, she along with her sister, Beth Lo, who provides the illustrations, depict a rather heartwarming story of growing up in the Midwest during the post-World War II period. As one of the few families of Chinese ancestry to be in the United States Midwest at the time, Ginnie and Beth often visit their Auntie Yang’s house. Once there they engage in various games, eat dumplings, and generally retain their connections to their Chinese heritage. Ginnie and Beth’s parents and their aunt (of the title) and their uncle of course miss many aspects of China, especially the food. On one drive through the area, they discover a large soybean field; the crop is apparently being cultivated to feed livestock and cattle, though the adults have other ideas and request from the farmer that they pick some of the soybeans. Once they have their stash of soybeans, they use it to create various dishes, the simplest of course being the steaming of these vegetables, which become a way for the older generation to bond over a food that was a staple for them while in China. The picture book concludes with all of the family—including other aunts and uncles—coming to the United States for the first time. This handsome publication also includes some historical and authorial notes toward the end that really put the finishing touches on this poignant story.

Paul Yee’s The Jade Necklace was one of the first children’s picture books where I noticed that it was really important to actually read the book jacket flap in order to get at the social contexts of the text. Indeed, Yee’s work relies upon the reader to get a sense of the historical period (very late 19th century) by reading this block of text. The illustrations for The Jade Necklace are also interestingly completed by Grace Lin, who is also a well-known children’s picture book writer and author of numerous YA fictions herself, so it’s interesting to see some of these collaborations go on. Yee himself has been reviewed here for his work, Money Boy, so we begin to see that many of these writers “traffic” in between these genres. In the Jade Necklace, we have, much like the work of Ginnie and Beth Lo, a Chinese immigrant saga wrapped up into a short children’s picture book, but which focuses on the transnational move from China to Canada. In this case, Yenyee travels to the United States after her fisherman father is presumed dead at sea. Due to the family’s growing financial problems, Yenyee is essentially sold to another family to take care of their daughter and Yenyee travels with them to the U.S. At the heart of this story, though, is Yenyee’s anger: a pendant given to her by her father and which she threw back into the ocean, hoping that it would bring him safely back home, leaves her a bitter young girl. As Yenyee must help the daughter acculturate in Canada, she must rescue her from drowning in the Pacific (this sequence takes place in Stanley Park, Vancouver). Magically, the pendant reappears during that sequence and Yenyee realizes she must let go of that anger. The father of the family that purchased her domestic service asks her what she might want and she asks that father to reunite her with her mother and brother. The last panel shows what appears to be her mother and brother arriving by boat. As with the Lo book, there’s quite a lot to squeeze in here in terms of social and historical contexts. Lin does a great job of portraying the story in pictorial terms, but again, this book is clearly suited for readers of varying ages and I’d be interested in some theoretical considerations of how children’s picture book writers must deal with the intricacy of subject matter through their various aesthetic choices.

Paula Yoo’s Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds take an innovative approach to a biographical narrative by reformulating it for a younger audience. In this case, Yoo takes on the story of Sammy Lee, one of the first American medalists of Korean descent, who won medals in the sport of diving. In some ways, I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised that Yoo wrote this book because it is not unlike her young adult fiction, Good Enough, in the sense that it works to (at least partially) dispel the model minority myth and would be an attractive book to consider giving to young children who might want to find a balance between their studies and their other, perhaps more idiosyncratic interests. What was especially interesting to me about Lee’s life was that, though facing an incredible amount of discrimination in the first half of the 20th century, he still found novel ways to engage his training regimen. At one point, he practices diving on days when he is not allowed to go to the local swimming pool by jumping into a sandpit. Of course, in these instances, he could not practice going into the pit headfirst and instead had to land feet first. This approach had the extra-added benefit of giving Lee a stronger spring on his dives, which would later give him a competitive edge. Dom Lee’s illustrations remind me of Chris K. Sontpiet in that they have a slightly impressionistic style that lends itself well to a story informed by the historical past.

Like Yoo’s historically informed children’s book, Ken Mochizuki takes on the subject of the Japanese American internment (remember Allen Say’s Home of the Brave) but positions the story through the eyes of a young boy who learns to play baseball at camp. This sport helps him to gain confidence and though he’s of short stature, he is pivotal in helping his team win a major championship. Problems arise when he leaves camp and realizes that he must face racial discrimination and the presumption that he cannot really play baseball. But the main character perseveres and continues to play baseball for his school team, even despite bullying and prejudice. As with Yoo’s topic, this one engages a different historical period and offers us an account of an individual who does not let his racial difference determine how he will conduct himself and or how he will pursue his dreams. It would be interesting to see how the target audience would be able to consider these admittedly complex themes and reminds us of how these books are probably aimed not only at the children who will read them, but also the adults who will want to pick them out.

In Alan Woo’s Maggie’s Chopsticks (with illustrations by Isabelle Malenfant), the titular Maggie doesn’t quite know how to hold her chopsticks. At various meals, she observes her own family deftly moving their chopsticks to gather up challenging and slippery foods, including rice grains, pieces of shrimp, and bread buns. Maggie feels an ethnoracial lack, to be sure, but by the ending of the story, we see that though she has not yet mastered her technique, she is still being embraced for her attempts. This narrative is not unlike Suki’s Kimono and others I have reviewed which work to engage the young reader in terms of a specific ethnoracial context and aspects of shame. I have been thinking more about this topic in relation to these children’s picture books that especially work toward building self-esteem in this way. The other element I am interested in, especially in these collaborations, is whether or not the writer has a vision of the way that the art should look like and gives specific directions to the artist, or does it sometimes work the other way around where the artist has a sense of the story and might suggest the narrative to the writer to flesh out? Who knows, but I’d be interested in hearing about how children’s picture books are written and illustrated together, as part of a team.

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I love how you are finding all these children's literature books! I'm fascinated by the particular genre of historical children's literature, especially as recovery history to fill in the gaps of knowledge that many Americans have about Asian and Asian American history!