Book recommendations

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic
Story by Ginnie Lo, Illustrations by Beth Lo
Lee & Low Books, 2012

While growing up in a small town in Indiana, Jinyi and Pei’s family would often make the three-hour drive to visit their mother’s sister, Auntie Yang, and her family just outside Chicago.

One weekend, during a Sunday drive, the families come across a field of soybeans, a food Jinyi’s mother and Auntie Yang often ate in China. They sorely missed soybeans now that they were living in the United States.

What starts out as a special treat for dinner, eventually grows into an annual event held at a city park with about 200 Chinese people.

“Auntie Yang’s” is based on sisters Ginnie and Beth Lo’s real-life aunt of the same name and the soybean picnics she held while they were growing up. In the story, Jinyi and Pei’s mother and aunt are the only members of their family living in America, while the rest of their siblings are back in China. In addition, there are not many Chinese families in the Midwest. Because of this, the two sisters make an extra effort to visit with each other.

“Auntie Yang’s” is a story about the importance of family, making the most with the family you have, and creating your own new family with those around you. It shows how being part of a larger community can help a person deal with difficulties, such as being homesick and missing loved ones.

The story reminded me of my years growing up and going to picnics and other gatherings with family and friends. It also reminded me of the various games we kids would make up and play, just as Jinyi, her sister, cousins, and the other youngsters would do.

In addition to the fun story, young readers will enjoy the brightly colored illustrations depicting Jinyi and Pei’s small family, their get-togethers at Auntie Yang’s, and the large gatherings held in the park. Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong
By L. Tam Holland
Simon & Schuster, 2013

It all begins with a history assignment.

Sophomore Vee Crawford-Wong and his classmates have to write an essay about their family history. The only problem is that the half Chinese, half Texan Vee knows nothing about either his Chinese or Texan roots. These are topics his parents never discuss. But rather than ask them for help on the assignment, Vee turns to Wikipedia and writes an essay about a made-up grandfather he never knew.

Things snowball from there and Vee eventually finds himself, his parents, and his best friend Madison, whose real name is Miao-Ling, on a trip to China to see his paternal grandfather, thanks to a forged letter from China written by Madison.

“Family Tree” is the story of a teenaged boy trying to figure out who he is. His actions may have started with the history assignment, but it is clear that he is desperate to know more about his roots. And like most teens, his actions may seem selfish and uncaring about how they might affect his parents or others around him. However, you can’t help but cheer him on and hope for things to work out for him. This is because Holland has created a character who is endearing and loves his parents, but who is also flawed. In other words, Vee is human. He is also very much a teenager — a quality Holland captures perfectly with his overdramatic outbursts and his tendency to act first and think later.

In addition to the touching moments, Vee shares with his parents as they get to know each other more. “Family Tree” is filled with humorous moments. From the time Vee and Madison start a rumor that his nemesis is racist to explain a fight, to the time Vee explains to Madison that her reputation for being “perfect” will be her cover if and when his parents find out about the forged letter, you will find yourself laughing at the title character’s actions. Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan
By Leslie Helm
Chin Music Press, 2013

When Leslie Helm and his wife, Marie, decide to adopt Japanese children after learning they would not be able to have biological children of their own, he sets off on a journey to learn more about his Japanese roots.

Born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, Helm comes from a long line of “foreigners” living in the country for nearly a century and a half. It all began with Helm’s German great-grandfather, Julius Helm, who moved to Japan in 1869 after he struggled to find good work in America. Julius defied custom and married his Japanese mistress. Since then, the Helm family has become a part of the country’s modern history — despite not actually being “Japanese.”

Drawing from various primary sources, including Julius’ unpublished memoir, Helm thoroughly researched story is a look at how his family lived as “outsiders” in a country hesitant to embrace those different from them.

I have read many stories about biracial families. And in those stories, the cross-cultural struggles people usually have tend to focus on the non-white side and how this made them different from others. Helm’s family’s story, however, was the exact opposite. Living in Japan, their “whiteness” was what made them different from everyone else — to the point of which younger generations, such as Helm’s and his father’s, almost forget that they have Japanese blood in them.

Having grown up here in the States, where white is the “default mode” in society, it was interesting to read about a family’s experience in an opposite, but parallel, situation. The Helm family’s story will remind readers of how easy it can be to look at others and focus on what is different about them and judge them on it, rather than look for what makes us the same and to connect. (end)

Samantha Pak can be reached at

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