CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 4 . . . . October 13, 2006
While several Chinese Canadian authors’ works represent the experiences of Chinese Canadians and Chinese people abroad, Paul Yee is one of the few Chinese Canadian authors who has written extensively on these topics for young people. In an interview in the journal Canadian Children’s Literature, Paul Yee talks about writing as a way both to educate readers about Chinese Canadians’ past experiences and as a way to acknowledge his Chinese Canadian predecessors’ histories and lives. His story Bamboo contributes to this while, at the same time, conveying a tale that young readers can enjoy.
The story’s general plot is that Ming’s husband, Bamboo, goes abroad in search of wealth to support their new family after Ming has a baby, but Ming encounters problems with her sister-in-law Jin. Greedy and jealous of Ming’s success, she tries to steal the magic bamboo that is helping Jin to farm the land. When Jin fails, she asks her husband, Banyan, to destroy all of Ming’s bamboo. Jin threatens Banyan that, if he does not do as she wishes, she will tell the whole village that he is a cowardly husband who fails to protect his wife. However, when Ming saves Jin’s son from drowning, Jin is grateful and asks for Ming’s forgiveness. Later, Ming’s husband returns from abroad as a wealthy man, and they share their wealth with Banyan and Jin.
The plot will be easy for children to follow and understand because it parallels certain elements of the fairy tale that children will probably recognize: the character who goes on a journey; a magic item that helps Ming, the protagonist; the antagonist Jin who wants to thwart Ming’s success; and the prosperous return of Ming’s husband at the end of the story. They will sympathize with Ming’s situation and also admire her resilience in coping with her situation alone. While Yee’s plot may have these recognizable elements, it also avoids depicting characters in a one-dimensional manner. For example, Jin may appear as a purely evil person, but Yee complicates this depiction by having Jin ask Ming for forgiveness which Ming readily gives. In addition, Ming’s sharing of wealth with them also complicates this representation further. Thus, Yee uses a specific historical context to tell a story that will appeal to a wider audience because it extols the positive virtues of forgiveness, sharing with others, and remaining optimistic and resilient in the face of hardship.
In contrast to the more realistic illustrations in Paul Yee’s other picture book, Ghost Train, this book’s bright and colourful illustrations will likely appeal more to younger children and keep their attention as they read the story. Besides emphasizing significant moments in the plot, the book’s illustrations complement the story well by representing the cultural and physical contexts in which the characters live. They include details such as the vegetables sold at the market, the landscape surrounding the village, and the houses in which the characters lived. All of these will help children to imagine what it is like to live in a Chinese village long ago.
As a whole, the book’s language is suitable for its audience, although it may be helpful for parents or teachers to read along with children so that they can help to define some unfamiliar words as well as to situate the book in the context of Chinese history. Representing historical topics in children’s picture books is a tricky task, not only because a picture book places limitations on the length of story that can be told, but also because it needs to be appealing and understandable for younger children to read. In this regard, this picture book may be harder for some young children to identify or engage with because the protagonist Ming is an adult and the story, itself, is set in an unfamiliar time and place. As a result, it would be useful for parents, teachers, and librarians who use this book to contextualize it so that young readers can better appreciate the story and its significance in depicting a certain part of Chinese history. The story’s ending is a happy one for Ming and Bamboo, which is appropriate to the age group that it targets. The use of this book in, for example, a social studies class may serve as a useful starting point for talking about Chinese history, but it would also be important for teachers to point out that many Chinese men who went abroad were not as successful as Yee’s character Bamboo. Instead, many Chinese immigrants came back poor or were unable to return at all.
Overall, this book provides a welcome addition to the relatively small, but growing, body of Chinese Canadian literature for children and young adults.
Huai-Yang Lim is currently pursuing a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.