by Laurence Yep, published 1975
“All of a sudden I saw that if life seems awfully petty most of the time, every now and then there is something noble and beautiful and almost pure that lifts us suddenly out of the pettiness and lets us share in it a little.”
Dragonwings is a startling and unusual children’s book, in both its subject matter and honesty. This work of historical fiction covers the Chinese culture in San Francisco at the turn of the century (1900’s) with remarkable detail and accuracy. The story is told through the eyes of 9-year-old immigrant boy, over several years of his life until about age 12. However, what makes the book so unusual is that the experience of the immigrants is not romanticized at all. Rather, the clash of cultures is pictured with great honesty and compassion, making this a very compelling read.
Because I lived in Hong Kong for several years, much of the Chinese culture that this children’s book describes was familiar to me. However, the author takes pains to be sure that someone who has no background in that culture understands all the pieces. Looking at Westerners through the eyes of the Chinese can be hard medicine but one that is so essential, as we need to understand that cultures don’t see things in the same way.
I was astounded at the end of the book to discover that the boy’s father is based on a true historical incident, which made the book even more appealing to me. All of the characters in the book are deftly crafted to leave an indelible impression of the archetypes that they represent. Finally, it is not that common to come across great books about the Asian immigrant experience written for children, so this children’s book is unique in that way as well.
Some of the experiences might be difficult for a young child to read, so I suggest this is for age 12 and older. Since the main character is a boy, it’s also a good one for boys to read. And it’s a terrific children’s book to use in any classroom setting that might be studying the life of immigrants in America.