For this last Nonfiction Monday of Asian Pacific Heritage Month, here are two exceptional picture book biographies. First up is Hiromi’s Hands by Lynne Barasch (Lee and Low, 2007).
This is my favorite PB biography from last year. Sure, I might be a tad partial to a book about food. But the story of how Hiromi Suzuki became one of the first female sushi chefs in New York City touches on so many inspiring themes — the value of hard work and determination, respect for tradition, family love, and the importance of progressive thinking in realizing goals.
Told from Hiromi’s point of view, we see how her father, Akira, trained to be a sushi chef in Japan, working long hours for three years before he was even allowed to slice the fish. He is hired by a restaurant in NYC, and shortly thereafter opens his own restaurant, Akasaka. This is rewarding but demanding work, and Hiromi misses her father. When she is eight, she begs him to take her to the fish market where he purchases for the restaurant.
Recognizing her desire to become a sushi chef, Akira allows Hiromi to help in his restaurant when she is 13, even though the profession has always been dominated by males. Like her father, Hiromi works long and hard for 3 years before she is given her own yanagi (sushi knife), to truly begin her apprenticeship. The first person point of view will engage and endear readers, young and old alike.
Lynne Barasch’s ink and pastel watercolours are light, airy, and just detailed enough for depicting the bustling fish markets in Japan and NYC, trays of colorful sushi, and the warmth of father and daughter. There is an excellent glossary and pronunciation guide listing all kinds of sushi, as well as an author’s note about Hiromi, who was a childhood friend of the author’s daughter. Did I already mention the mouthwatering pictures of sushi?
Hiromi’s Hands received starred reviews from both Kirkus and School Library Journal, as well as many other accolades, including the 2008 Kiriyama Prize for Notable Children’s Books. You can peek inside the book at the publisher’s website.
I was excited to see this book, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds, a few years ago, but wondered why I had never heard of Sammy Lee, the first Asian American to win an Olympic Gold Medal. And he’s Korean, no less. Understand, this is a rare and wonderful thing for someone like me.
Just like Duke Kahanamoku, Sammy Lee faced discrimination in his quest to become an Olympic champion. The book begins with Sammy watching others at a swimming pool from behind a chain link fence when he was just 12, aching to join them but unable to because non-whites were only allowed in on Wednesdays.
When he was 18, a man named Jim Ryan saw him practicing and offered to become his coach. Because his pool usage was still limited, he practiced diving into a sandpit in Coach Ryan’s back yard. Sammy did well in high school, but once he entered college his grades suffered, and he argued with his father, who wanted him to become a doctor.
They reached a compromise — Sammy could continue entering diving competitions if he kept his grades up. Sammy worked very hard to balance both his dreams, discovering that he did have a passion for medicine after all. He became a doctor in 1946, and two years later competed in the London Olympics, where he won a Gold Medal for the 10-meter platform event, and a bronze in the 3-meter springboard event. He then served as a doctor in the Korean War, before entering the Olympic Games in Helsinki, where he became the first athlete to win gold medals in consecutive Olympics.
For this inspiring story of perserverance, Paula Yoo won Lee and Low’s New Voices Award. The sepia-toned illustrations by Dom Lee resemble old photographs, creating a sense of timelessness. An author’s note summarizes Dr. Lee’s amazing achievements, and a backflap photo features him at age 84, posing with the author and illustrator.