One thing that this class has taught me is that I need to be more aware of my student's backgrounds and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in good literature. This year I have a first generation Asian student who is very private about her background. I know that she feels uncomfortable being the only Asian student in my class, and her reserved personality only makes the other students more curious about her. Unfortunately, that interest sometimes comes out in inappropriate ways. To help ease the situation, I am trying to educate my students about modern Chinese-American families so they can ask respectful questions, and show my Asian student that there other families just like hers.
In my search for modern Chinese-Americans I came across Lenore Look's Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding. It was interesting to watch the book make the rounds in my classroom. I was pleased to see my Asian student shyly pick up the book and briefly smile as she read it...
The story begins with Jenny, the narrator, describing her favorite uncle--"This is Uncle Peter, my father's baby brother, the coolest dude, a girl's best buddy." Jenny goes on to explain that she is miserable because Uncle Peter is getting married and she is suppose to be his "special girl". The rest of the family is thrilled with Peter's choice of a bride which only makes Jenny feel worse. The story quickly tumbles through a family packed wedding day--picking up and paying for the bride, family pictures, paying respects to ancient family members, the tea ceremony, Hungbau, the bed-jumping ceremony, and of course the wedding. Even with all the festivities Jenny cannot lose her sadness until Stella says "You are my first and only niece, I hope you know that I love you" and hands her a box filled with beautiful butterflies to release. Jenny suddenly feels the magic of the moment.
Lenore Look's writing style is short and sweet. She doesn't waste words getting to the point that Jenny feels like she is being left behind. Every young child can relate to worrying about losing someone you love because they are getting married. One student who read the story commented that she had felt the same way when her mom got engaged. However something different about this story is that it is full of references to Chinese-American wedding traditions. Lenore Look does a great job explaining the tradition and how it is handled today, one hundred years ago, and even two hundred years ago. When it is time to pick up the bride, Jenny explains that one hundred years ago she would have ridden in a chair carried by his friends. Two hundred years ago he would have carried her on his back. Today, Uncle Peter uses his car. Jenny uses The ancient tea ceremony where the groom's family welcomes the bride to the family is mentioned when Jenny uses it as away to show her displeasure with the wedding. It also talks about importance of the color red for good luck, gifts of money for health and happiness, and even the bed jumping ceremony so the couple will have "as many children as will jump on their bed". The story does a wonderful job introducing and explaining what seem to be odd traditions. I know I learned some new things; I hope my class did as well.
Yumi Heo does a wonderful job with the illustration in the book. From the front cover to the end of the book you see symbols and Chinese-Americans celebrating a modern wedding. The front cover has Jenny, Uncle Peter, and new Aunt Stella arranged in a triangle giving us insight to how the story will end. The end pages set the mood with a traditional Chinese symbol on a background of love birds. Yumi Heo continues to use the theme of background art throughout the book. When we see Jenny crying for the loss of Uncle Peter, the background illustrates the things that they shared; peanut, butter and jelly, extra butter for toast, hot dogs, and hot tea. She even includes a umbrella that is turned inside out to reflect Jenny's feelings. The pages are full bleed making you feel like you are part of the story. They are also filled with illustrations of happy, smiling faces that swirl around Jenny causing her even more guilt for her great sadness. The last page of the book is the most beautiful. It is a double page spread with the affirmation that Jenny needs to hear from new Aunt Stella-that she loves Jenny. Across the pages the illustration reflects Jenny's new joy. The background is bright yellow filled with swirling butterflies and a beaming Jenny at a diagonal because she's a little unsure about the future.
Something that I thought was interesting about this book was how little information I could find about it. Neither Lenore Look or Yumi Heo have official web sites. I could only find a blog for Lenore Look and a Facebook page for Yumi Heo. The book doesn't seem to have won any awards or honors, not even a multicultural honor. I would have loved to know how or if they work together to create books, what part their backgrounds play in the books they create, and how the illustrations were created.