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Book Reviews

Asian Pacific American

 

Allen Say        Laurence Yep    Linda Sue Park   

 


  Allen Say

Bibliographic Citation:
Say, Allen.  1997.  Allison.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.  ISBN 039585895X.

Summary: 
When Allison realizes she does not look like her parents, she questions them about her birth and finds out she is adopted.  As she goes through various emotions, she retaliates and acts out against her parents.  When she finds a stray cat, however, she learns about what makes a real family.

Analysis:

    In Allen Say's Allison, a young girl learns she is adopted and deals with the consequences of being different from her parents.  In her family there was Mother, Father, Allison, and Mei Mei.  Though Mei Mei is only a doll, Allison pretends she is her younger sister and turns to her for comfort.  One day Allison's grandmother sends her a red dress that is a kimono like Mei Mei wears (Say 4).  When her mother ties the obi and tells her to look in the mirror, Allison's eyes stray from her own reflection to her parents' behind her.  She sees that "Mei Mei's hair was dark and straight like hers" (Say 6).  After pondering the differences she saw in the mirror, Allison asks her parents where Mei Mei came from.  Her father explains, "Far, far away, from another country.  Mommy and I went there and brought you and Mei Mei home with us." (Say 8)  Say does not specify which country Allison's parents adopted her from.  The kimono is the only clue to her possible Japanese heritage and birth. 

    Allison reacts with confusion and anguish as any child her age would.  She cries, "Where's my Mommy?  Where's my Daddy?" (Say 8)  Her parents try to explain that they never met her real parents and they do not know what they are like.  They have little information to give to Allison.  Then they allow her to retreat to her room with Mei Mei.  One critic pointed out, "One can't help wondering, too, why Allison doesn't already know about her past if she is surrounded by cultural reminders and why her parents don't respond to her pain with immediate physical and verbal warmth and comfort." (Lukehart)  Say depicts Allison's parents staring longing after their daughter as she walks soberly to her room (11)  Dejected and hurt, Allison withdraws from her peers and her parents.  She rebels against her parents by shredding her mother's dolls and ruining her father's baseball mitt (Say 18, 20).  They both react with anger and frustration, rather than comforting Allison and trying to get to the root of her outbursts.

    Say accurately captures Allison's emotions as they shift from confusion to sadness to rage.  "He addresses the dark side of an adoptive child's feelings carefully, and while the resolution is a bit convenient (and may require interpretation for younger children), it still carries truth." (Kirkus Reviews)  Allison alludes to the connection between her parents' adoption of her and her adopting stray cat when she says to it, "Don't you have a mommy?" (Say 24)  This is a subtle connection that might evade younger audiences.  Allison's parents do not carry on a conversation with their daughter about the similarities, but rather allow her to draw her own conclusions.  Say provides a heal-all solution with her parents' forgiving Allison for ruing their things and making the kitty a part of their family (Say 28).

    Though Say reveals little about Allison's ethnic background in the text, he says more with his illustrations.  Allison's parents are portrayed as typical Caucasian adults with pale skin, various shades of brown for their hair, and thin smiles.  They both wear typical American clothing ranging from white collared shirts to neutral-colored sweaters to a patterned tie.  The colors are very subdued and draw little attention away from the story's focus, Allison.  On the other hand, Say draws Allison with pale skin, wide almond eyes, dark straight hair, and a delicate mouth.  Her features are similar to her doll, Mei Mei.  Allison stands out in the illustrations more than her parents because she wears clothing in rich jewel tones of green, red, yellow, and blue.  They reveal her importance in the story, as well as her age.   

    "Say's trademark nuanced and limpid watercolors convey and complete the emotional resonance of this adoption story." (Kirkus Reviews)  Say accurately captures Allison's expressions as she experiences various emotions.  One critic claimed, "Caldecott Medalist Say's watercolors externalize Allison's inner landscape, a beige and neutral world in which she provides the only relief.  The photographic quality of the art underscores Say's realistic treatment of his delicate subject." (Publishers Weekly)  Readers can see Allison's smile fall as she glances in the mirror at her and her parents (Say 7).  Her downcast eyes and tight smile reveal her anger and sadness when she discovers she is adopted and different from the other children at her daycare (Say 11, 15).  Clutching the stray cat in her arms, Allison pulls her face tight on the verge of tears (Say 26).  When she is reassured by her parents and the acceptance of the cat into the family, the joy lights up her face again as Say depicts her with a big, toothy grin (31).

    Despite the book's over simplification of the subject and the criticized ending, I agree with one reviewer who said, "A subtle, sensitive probing of interracial adoption, this exquisitely illustrated story will encourage thoughtful adult-child dialogue on a potentially difficult issue." (Publishers Weekly)  This book emphasizes the fact that there is no one way to describe a family.  They come in a variety of ways and cultures.  One does not always have to be born into a family.  I feel that Say's handling of this subject will help young readers learn tolerance toward alternative families and gain insight into the emotions adoptive children may experience.  One thing that did bother me, however, was that the book was so focused on the adoption aspect.  Say relied on subtly to convey the idea of interracial families.  I believe that the idea might be too subtle for young readers, and the kimono Allison's grandmother sends her automatically stereotypes her as a young Japanese girl.  Still this is an important read that handles a delicate situation.

Reference List:
Kirkus Reviews.  n.d.  Allison review.  http://www.bn.com  (Accessed July 26, 2006).

Lukehart, Wendy.  n.d.  School library journal: Allison review.  http://www.bn.com  (Accessed July 26, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  n.d.  Allison review.  http://www.bn.com  (Accessed July 26, 2006).


  Laurence Yep

Bibliographic Citation:
Yep, Laurence.  2000.  Dream soul.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers.  ISBN 0060283904.

Summary: 
In the winter of 1927, Joan Lee and her siblings try to convince their father to allow them to celebrate Christmas for the first time along with everyone else.  Joan struggles with her attempts to fit in with her peers and to please her disapproving father.  When her father becomes ill, however, she learns what is really important to her and how to take pride in her Chinese American heritage.  

Analysis:

    In Dream Soul, Laurence Yep tells the story of fifteen-year-old Joan Lee who struggles with being Chinese American.  Set in 1927, the Lee family has recently moved to West Virginia to open a new laundry.  The children are "nothing like the Chinese in the stories or satirical cartoons" because they dress like American children and speak English (Yep 16).  With Christmas only weeks away, Joan and her siblings long to celebrate it like everyone else.  When their landlady, Miss Lucy, invites them to join her, the siblings' father agrees but only if they behave like good children.  Unable to meet his high demands, the siblings see their chance to celebrate their first Christmas slipping away.  When Joan's father becomes ill and she realizes the severity of his stomach problems, she convinces her siblings and Miss Lucy to stop pushing for a Christmas celebration. 

    When Miss Lucy objects to canceling Christmas because of Mr. Lee's illness, Joan defends her father, realizing how much he does love them.  She says, "He made all these sacrifices to come to America and then bring Mama over.  And now he works such long hours that he hardly ever sleeps.  My father doesn't show his love in all the ways American parents might.  You can't just judge him on the basis of one holiday." (Yep 175)  Joan also realizes that she was wrong about her father's interrogations about their school lessons.  He was not testing them to see if they had learned anything, but rather he was using them as tutors for himself.  He recorded summaries of the children's lessons and then studied.  Joan found written among his notes "Must not fall behind.  Must keep up with children." and another one said "Losing them." (Yep 205)  Their great scholarly father was merely trying to obtain an American education through his children.  Joan immediately realizes her mistake and feels instant remorse for her actions. 

    While in Papa's library, Joan feels an icy hand on her neck.  It made her think of Papa's story about the dream soul.  She convinces herself that what she felt was her father's dream soul, who could not find its way back to his body.  Grasping one of his writing brushes, she follows the breeze out into the night calling her father's name.  Leaving choir practice, her friends spot Joan out in the cold.  Though Henrietta thinks she has gone made, the others explain that it is some kind of Chinese custom and offer their help.  They join in calling for Mr. Lee until Joan is satisfied that her father's dream soul has returned.  The next morning Joan thanks Bernice for helping her call.  She dismisses Joan's worries or concerns about her actions.  Joan says, "I was glad Bernice was my friend.  And I felt even happier to know I could be Chinese with her and the others." (Yep 219)  She feels relief that she no longer has to divide her life in two, but rather can incorporate both her Chinese heritage and American birth into her identity.

    Joan keeps her father company by reading him stories.  It is easier for her to translate American stories into Chinese, rather than reading her father's Chinese books.  When she asks him to help her learn more Chinese, he responds, "I've been thinking too.  Master Kung may be a bit too dry for the young ones.  And literary Chinese is hard even for scholars.  But you seemed to like the story about the star's tears.  I'll send for some collections with stories in regular Chinese." (Yep 221)  Joan is delighted and relieved by this solution.  She has come a long way in accepting and appreciating the sacrifices her parents have made for the children.  One book reviewer said, "Joanie's evolution in understanding the strength, love, and culture with which her parents have always graced her is warming." (Codell 2000)

    Yep immediately identifies his main character as Chinese American.  Though the story includes no description of Joan's physical attributes, he uses descriptive and eloquent language.  One critic noted, "Details of landscape, climate, and period are quite evocative.  Major characters are fully developed.  Even the minor figures are interesting." (Codell 2000)  Yep balances the snowy, white setting against the Lee's memories of warm sun in China.  He subtly incorporates details about the Lee family's heritage.  They have rice gruel and porridge for breakfast.  Then they eat rice and salted, steamed vegetables for dinner.  Joan talks about a time when the family was so poor that the children had to take lettuce sandwiches to school for lunch, instead of bologna.  Yep also plagues Mr. Lee with an affliction common to Asians and Asian Americans.  He says in the Afterword, "There are many Asians who suffer from lactose intolerance.  As a child I couldn't understand why so many old-timers stayed away from ice cream.  It was only later . . . that I did."   

    In addition to the food, Mr. Lee alludes to the family's religious and philosophical beliefs by referring to the teachings of Confucius, or Master Kung as he calls the scholar.  These beliefs vary from the Christian views of the family's neighbors.  Though the children were born in America, Mama tells them, "You're Chinese.  You should be celebrating Chinese holidays, not American ones." (Yep 22)  Yep utilizes language to distinguish Joan's parents.  They were born in China and only know a little English.  When they do use it, their dialogue is often stilted and awkward.  When Farmer Pynchon comes to complain about the children trespassing on his land again and irritating his bull, Joan has to intervene.  Fluent in both languages, Joan is often forced to be the interpreter for her parents.  Her mother, however, responds, "We sorry.  Not happen again." (Yep 144)  Her father chose to bow deeply to Farmer Pynchon and says, "We sorry.  These bad, bad children." (Yep 145)  Joan explains to readers that when her father does not know all the words to say he relies on repetition to get his point across.  

    In both the Preface and Afterword, Yep tells how he grew up on stories not only of China but of West Virginia.  He claims to have "two spiritual homelands" (Yep v).  Yep informs readers that though the book is fiction, many of the events are based on true incidents that happened to his family.  Through his discussion, he makes the novel more real and personal for the readers.  Also, it is within the Preface that Yep instructs readers how to decipher the dialogue in his narratives.  He italicizes all conversations in English, and leaves all conversations in Chinese.  This allows readers to see how the Lee family switches back and forth between the two languages without requiring the reader to have knowledge of Chinese.  Since the language does not have letters similar to the American alphabet, this is the only practical way of incorporating the family's extensive use of their native tongue.  Though confusing at first, young readers will quickly catch onto the author's use of italics and dual languages. 

    By distinguishing between conversations in English and Chinese, Yep allows readers the chance to see how bilingual families utilize their first- and second-languages.  I believe this novel will provide young readers with a glimpse into the difficulties of growing up in a bicultural environment.  Joan and her siblings' struggles to fit in and be America clash with their parents' Chinese upbringing.  Joan wrestles with pleasing her parents versus fitting in with her peers.  Struggling to find one's identity and place in the world is a universal theme that I think readers will be able to relate to, no matter their ethnicity or background. 

Reference List:
Codell, Cindy Darling.  2000.  School library journal: Dream soul review.  http://www.bn.com  (Accessed July 23, 2006).

 


  Linda Sue Park

Bibliographic Citation:
Park, Linda Sue.  2005.  Project mulberry.  New York: Clarion Books.  ISBN 0618477861. 

Summary: 
Seventh-grade Julia Song and her best friend Patrick decide to join the Wiggle Club.  When Julia's mother suggests they raise silkworms, Julia struggles to accept the project because she feels it is "too Korean" and she wants to do a more American project.  She figures out a way to make the project more personal that includes both her Korean background and her American upbringing.  In between chapters, the author and Julia carry on conversations concerning the narrative and its direction.

Analysis:  

    In Linda Sue Park's Project Mulberry, she tells the story of Julia Song and her best friend Patrick.  Julia begins by explaining that Patrick and she became friends because of a vegetable.  She cannot stand the Korean pickled cabbage that "gets cut up and salted and packed in big jars with lots of garlic, green onions, and hot red pepper" and is called kimchee (Park 1).  Julia was always apprehensive about bringing friends over to her house because they would complain about the potent smell of it.  Patrick's reaction, however, was different and he became enthralled with kimchee.  This solidified their friendship.

    The pair searches for project ideas for their Work-Grow-Give-Live! Club or the Wiggle Club.  When Julia's mother suggests they raise silkworms, Patrick is excited about the idea and gets right to work researching on the Internet.  Julia, however, begins thinking of ways to get out of the project.  She explains, "I thought of Wiggle as a club that was all country life . . . Silkworms just didn't seem like a good Wiggle project to me.  They didn't fit into the big-red-barn picture." (Park 29)  To her silkworms seemed too Korean.  She wanted a "nice, normal, All-American, red-white-and-blue kind of project" (Park 30). 

    Julia's objection begins the author's in-depth look at the girl's struggle with being a part of the only Korean family in Plainfield.  Julia recalls how on one of her first days of school a bunch of girls yelled "Chinka-chinka-Chinaman" at her on the playground.  She explains, "It made me feel really bad inside--so bad that I hated thinking about it." (Park 29)  Park continually explores the issue of racial prejudice throughout her narrative. 

    When Mr. Dixon incorrectly refers to Julia as Chinese, she thinks to herself, "Once in a while somebody thinks I'm Japanese. But that's it--either Chinese or Japanese. It seems like those are the only kinds of Asians anyone has ever heard of. I didn't know exactly why it bugged me. Maybe because it made me feel like being Korean was so nothing--so not important that no one ever thought of it." (Park 140)  This insight clues readers into why Julia has tried so hard to resist doing a Korean-influenced project for her Wiggle Club.  Her bicultural identity makes her feel out of place.  She is neither just Asian nor just American, but rather of blend of both cultures.  It is only fitting that what Julia chooses to embroider with the silk thread from the worms "wasn't American, like the flag--but it wasn't Korean, either.  Or maybe it was both?" (Park 170)

    Park not only reveals Julia's insecurities about her Korean background, but her mother's dislike for African Americans.  When Julia had Mrs. Roberts for a teacher, Mrs. Song would continually quiz her daughter about her.  Julia says, "So I sort of figured it out: My mom thought Mrs. Roberts might not be a good teacher, because she was black.  That made things hard in a different way.  Most of the time, my mom was a very nice person.  I hated thinking of her as someone who might be prejudiced against black people." (Park 68)  She feels her suspicions are confirmed when her mother gets angry at her spending so much time at Mr. Dixon's house.  However, Julia refuses to come right out and ask her mother.  One critic noted that Julia "concludes that it is important to know what you don't know.  Park appropriately leaves Julia wondering what's behind her mother's prejudices in certain situations." (Scotto 2005)

    Julia concludes by explaining, "I wasn't sure if my mom letting us visit [Mr. Dixon] meant she wasn't a racist after all.  I didn't know--but at least I knew I didn't know.  If she was, maybe she was starting to change, at least a little." (Park 216)  Julia decides to leave the question unanswered.  Instead she does what she can to change her younger brother's perceptions about African Americans and other races by allowing him to tag along sometimes when she visited Mr. Dixon.  This was her way of helping things turn out the way she imagined them, no matter how small it was.           

    As Park weaves her bicultural narrative, she has employed an unusual layout for her novel.  "At the end of almost every chapter, Park and her young protagonist discuss the story inside the story: where the author's ideas came from, how the characters take on a life of their own, how questions raised in the book continue to percolate inside some readers' minds when it is finished.  This lively interaction provides an interesting parallel to the silkworm project as it moves from idea to reality." (Scotto 2005)  Though these conversations between Park and Julia provide insight that readers might have otherwise missed out own, they tend to interrupt the narrative flow of the story.  It often seems stilted and forced.  Park does, however, eliminate the conversation between the last two chapters.  She explains to Julia, "I did it on purpose.  I thought we needed to get things wrapped up toward the end there." (Park 216)

    I found the conversations between chapters distracting and often felt tempted to skip over them entirely.  However, they helped readers to see where Park got her ideas from and what details she stole from her personal life.  As she reveals, Park hated kimchee when she was little and her parents grew up in Korea (23).  She also has a younger sibling and a father who always did the dishes.  These small insights into the building of the story will entice young readers (and writers) to delve further into the book and its characters.  It helps them to see how a novel is developed and built from the author's perspective.   

    I also believe this book offers an important glimpse into Julia's experience as a Korean American.  She is able to find a balance between her Korean background and her American upbringing.  By learning to embroider the Korean way and raise silkworms, she feels connected to her past, while incorporating herself into the project.  I was impressed with Park's extensive research into raising silkworms.  She had her family help her out since she has a worm phobia, just like Patrick.  It made the story more personal and real knowing Park went through what he and Julia did.

Reference List:
Scotto, Barbara and Michael Driscoll Scott.  2005.  School library journal: Project mulberry review.  http://www.bn.com  (Accessed July 22, 2006).

 


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