Picture Books for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Part 2 (China)

photos by liveline, lionel bodilis, and Ayda7.

So, last time I featured some picture books about Korean culture and joyfully gobbled up a full platter of Jap Chae with Bulgogi. Turnip and won bok kimchee, fishcake, beansprout and watercress namul, lotus root and cinnamon tea perfectly topped off the meal. I must admit — I don’t usually limit such lipsmacking goodness to the month of May, but since it’s Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I have good reason to whet your appetite to the max so you can celebrate heartily with good books and good food.

Just as Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in this country, there has never been a shortage of China-related books for any age group. Every major city has a Chinatown, but not necessarily a Korea-town or a Japan-town. For quite awhile, I had to “pretend” I was Chinese in an attempt to identify with the sought-after element of Asian-ness I craved in books. So I encountered Laurence Yep, Betty Bao Lord, and Maxine Hong Kingston before I discovered Yoshiko Uchida, Lensey Namioka, Cynthia Kadohata or Linda Sue Park.

There are many more China-related picture books I want to read. I’m rounding up some of my recent finds in today’s post, and then I’ll feature several Japan-related books in Part 3. I can just imagine biting into a warm soup dumpling, the happy talky talk in a busy dim sum restaurant, the sizzle and crackle of hot oil in a wok beckoning sliced onion, green beans, carrots and pork. Today’s menu includes a ghost story, a gorgeous visual poem, and a family adjusting to life in America. Should we eat and then read, or read and then eat?

Why don’t we just dig in?

BOY DUMPLINGS by Ying Chang Compestine, pictures by James Yamasaki (Holiday House, 2009). Yum! Take one hungry Garbage-Eating ghost, a plump and juicy boy, an outrageous recipe for 1000 dumplings, and you’ve got just the right ingredients for a hilarious trickster tale. One night in Beijing, a skinny ghost roaming the streets discovers the buckets containing his usual food offerings are empty. After three days without food, he becomes desperate, grabs a chubby lantern-carrying boy and takes him home. But before the ghost has a chance to eat him, the impish boy tempts him with a delicious recipe for boy dumplings, which he simply cannot resist.

Extremely gullible and growing hungrier by the second, the ghost traipses through the village gathering the outlandish ingredients (10 pounds stinky garlic, 50 pounds rotten onions, 40 pounds wormy cabbage, 1 large bottle soy sauce, 1000 moldy dumpling wrappers). He tries his best to follow the boy’s orders for preparation — bathing him, massaging his feet, putting him down for a nap — only to discover he must also obtain a steamer and spring water. What happens to the ghost when the sun comes up? Surely there never was a more verbose, riotously bossy boy cleverly delaying his own demise. Includes an Author’s Note and recipe for Boy-Free Dumplings. Warning: contains adorable illos of roly-polyness in action, as well as a fabulous double page spread featuring sesame candy, coconut buns and almond cookies. Cool interview with Compestine at Finding Wonderland here.

CHINATOWN by William Low (Henry Holt, 1997). A Chinese American boy and his grandmother wander the streets of New York’s Chinatown. Young readers will enjoy visiting this colorful neighborhood, home to street cobblers and herbalists, tai chi masters, many restaurants and a seafood market. Low’s simple text and full bleed oil paintings rendered in a lush palette of deep blues, browns, reds, and yellows, capture all the fun, busyness, and deliciousness. Who can resist ducks hanging in the Dai Dai restaurant, or buying fresh snapping crabs for dinner? Best of all is the Lion Dance and the New Year’s Day parade. Great introduction to any Chinatown, especially for younger PB readers.

GOLDFISH AND CHRYSANTHEMUMS by Andrea Cheng, pictures by Michelle Chang (Lee & Low, 2003). Nancy’s grandmother (Ni Ni) is saddened to learn that her home and garden fish pond back in China are being destroyed. After winning two goldfish at the summer fair, Nancy decides to build a miniature pond in their back yard as a surprise. She’s able to accomplish this with the help of a neighbor and her brother Greg — they construct a stone walkway, plant chrysanthemums just like the ones Ni Ni remembers from her father’s garden, and place a bench by the pond. Moved to tears by the surprise, Ni Ni decides they should take pictures to send to her brother in China. A warm intergenerational story that speaks of togetherness and the rewards of a job well done.

HANNAH IS MY NAME: A YOUNG IMMIGRANT’S STORY by Belle Yang (Candlewick, 2004). Hannah and her parents leave Taiwan to make a new life for themselves in America. Upon their arrival in San Francisco, Hannah takes on her new English name, and describes how they “stay quiet and make themselves small” while waiting to get their green cards. There’s a visit to the immigration office with Mr. Choo, learning to speak English at her new school, shopping in Chinatown with Mama for bamboo shoots, snow peas and tofu. Mama is worried after being fired from her job at the store for not having a green card. Hardworking Baba and Hannah dash out the back door of the hotel diner to avoid an inspector’s visit. Finally, Hannah comes home from school one day to find Mama cooking potstickers and Baba humming a song. America is really their home at last! Based on Yang’s first years in San Francisco, this interesting, straightforward account of the immigration experience is illuminated by charming gouache illos, remniscent, in some ways, of Matisse.  

BEYOND THE GREAT MOUNTAINS: A VISUAL POEM ABOUT CHINA by Ed Young (Chronicle, 2005). Through fourteen lyrical lines and exquisitely composed cut and torn handmade paper collages, Young describes the mystical beauty and majesty of his native land. This bound-a-the-top, tiered page tour de force is at once simple and complex, breathtaking and ingenious. As the reader lifts each page, he witnesses another phase in the creation of Middle Empire, China, from “Beyond the Far Mountains” to “A Precious Stone Embraced Heaven and Earth, Jade.” The text is printed at the bottom edge of each page; right above the text is an ancient Chinese character from 500 B.C., which in turn is the inspiration for the form and shape of the corresponding collage. This is both a fascinating example of how pictorial symbols work and a sublime, highly creative rendering of a poetic notion. Appropriate for older readers who will no doubt be fascinated by the “hidden wisdom of symbols.” Contains an Author’s Note and Table of Chinese Characters with their ancient and modern forms.  

HAPPY BELLY, HAPPY SMILE by Rachel Isadora (Harcourt, 2009). Every Friday night, Louie has dinner with his Grandpa Sam at his restaurant in Chinatown. He gets to watch the chefs in the kitchen make egg rolls, peel shrimp and chop veggies at lightning speed. He watches Jai, the delivery boy, rush in and ride away on his bicycle with bags of hot food. Finally, it is time to eat. He and Grandpa Sam sit at a table under a paper dragon for good luck, and they chow down on steamed dumplings, egg rolls and Louie’s favorite, shrimp chow mein. Louie says no thank you to the whole fish and steamed crabs, but is happy about the orange slices and fortune cookie for dessert. Isadora’s mixed media collages (remniscent of Ezra Jack Keats) are the real draw for this book, with the charming endpapers covered with words like “fried rice,” “noodle soup,” “chow mein,” and “sweet and sour pork” whetting your appetite before you even turn the first page. Great blend of colors, textures, realistic photos and brush strokes depict a bustling, interesting eatery full of happy diners and busy chefs.

So now you’re probably asking, “What’s for lunch?” Guess we should have some of Louie’s shrimp chow mein!


Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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