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The novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Laurence Yep is one of the first Asian-American writers to dedicate himself to bringing the cultural values and historical significance of Chinese Americans into literature for young readers. Themes of tolerance, acceptance, and the struggle to balance the expectations of others with one’s own desires, as well as strong female characters and a dedication to historical accuracy, are all found in his works.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up between Cultures
Yep was born in San Francisco on June 14, 1948. His grandfather, Yep Lung Gon, had been born in San Francisco in 1867; this meant that Yep s father, Thomas Gim Yep, was born an American citizen in 1914 even though his birthplace was Kwangtung Province, China. Thomas Gim Yep was brought to the United States when he was ten. Yep s mother, Franche Lee Yep, was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1915. They had one son, Thomas, before Yep was born. The parents owned a grocery store, La Conquista, in an African-American neighborhood. Yep worked in the store while attending a bilingual elementary school in Chinatown and, later, a predominantly Caucasian Catholic high school.
Giving up his early desire to become a chemist, Yep enrolled in the journalism program at Marquette University in 1966. As a student there he wrote science-fiction short stories that were published in Galaxy magazine and the anthology World’s Best Science Fiction of l969.He was introduced to children’s literature by his fellow journalism student and future wife, Joanne Rose Ryder.
Yep transferred to the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1968 and received his BA in 1970. In 1973 he published his first novel, Sweetwater, a science-fiction work set on the planet Harmony. The young protagonist, Tyree Priest, is a member of a racial minority, the half-amphibian Silkies. Against his father’s wishes he forms a friendship with one of the majority Argans, who opens his eyes to the reality of prejudice. Yep earned his PhD from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1975 and took part-time positions as an instructor of English at the satellite campus of Foothill College in Mountain View, California, and at San Jose City College.
Juvenile Writing Earns Recognition
In 1975 Yep published the historical novel Dragon wings, the first in his Golden Mountain Chronicles series about several generations of the Young family of Chinese immigrants to the United States—the ”Land of the Golden Mountain,” as the Chinese called it. The product of more than six years of research into Chinese-American history, Dragonwings depicts the immigrant culture of the 1900s, including the bachelor societies created by Chinese men bereft of their families because of immigration restrictions and financial concerns. The main character is based in part on Fung Joe Guey, who built and flew a biplane in 1909; the character’s obsession with achieving flight is based on Yep’s father’s desire for a garden in their barren backyard when Yep was a child and on his talent for building kites. Dragonwings won a Newbery Honor Book Award, a Children’s Book Award from the American Library Association, an International Reading Association Award, and the Carter A. Woodson Award from the National Council of Social Studies, all in 1976.
In 1976 Yep left his position at San Jose City College to devote himself full-time to his writing. Over the next thirty years, Yep wrote prolifically, producing individual novels, fantasy series, plays, and collections of folktales. Among his better known works is the second novel of the Golden Mountain Chronicles series, Child of the Owl. This narrative is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1965. The story reflects Yep’s feelings when he was growing up and struggling with being too Chinese to be considered American and with being too American to be considered Chinese. The novel won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1977 and the Jane Addams Award of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1978.
Writing Series, Folktales, Plays
Yep then continued the Golden Mountain Chronicles in 1979 with Sea Glass. When his family moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to the mostly white coastal village of Concepcion, Craig Chin becomes an outsider in his mostly Anglo school. Overwhelmed by these changes and by his father’s obsession with turning him into a superior athlete, Craig escapes the pressures by visiting his Uncle Quail. His uncle helps him to choose between being himself and being the person others want him to be. Craig’s physical description, ineptitude at sports, and the pressure he feels from his father are autobiographical; Yep’s Uncle Francis is the model for Uncle Quail’s knowledge of sea life and scuba diving. The work won the Commonwealth Club of California Silver Medal in 1979.
Yep returned to the Golden Mountain Chronicles in 1984 with The Serpent’s Children, which begins during the Taiping Revolution in China in 1849. After her mother’s death, Cassia, her brother Foxfire, and their father struggle with poverty as they try to protect their lands from the invading Manchus and rival clans, and to honor their mother’s dying wish to keep the family together. Yep shows how the Chinese were forced to send male relatives off to America, the ”Land of the Golden Mountain,” to survive.
Yep and Ryder were married on February 14, 1985. From 1987 through 1989 Yep was a lecturer in Asian-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1987 he had two one-act plays produced in San Francisco.
In 1989 Yep published The Rainbow People, in which he retells twenty Chinese folktales that had been gathered in Oakland’s Chinatown in the 1930s as part of a federal government Works Progress Administration project, a part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic-recovery program during the 1930s Depression. Yep’s introduction describes the time and place from which the stories come and the way people lived during the period, and he prefaces each story with an explanation of how it relates to the Chinese-American experience. The book won Yep his second Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1989. In 1990, Yep was made writer-in-residence at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
More Asian Inspirations
Yep returned to the Golden Mountain series in 1993 with Dragon’s Gate; the second of his books to win a Newbery Honor Book Award, it is the prequel to the previous winner, Dragonwings. Yep published a Chinese version of the novel under the title Lung Men in 1995.
Aimed at younger readers, Yep’s anthology American Dragons: Twenty-Five Asian-American Voices (1993) comprises short stories, poems, and excerpts from plays about growing up Asian-American by authors with cultural roots throughout Southeast Asia, from Japan to India. The selections raise questions about identity as the youthful protagonists either embrace or reject their Asian heritage.
Yep’s next story, a novella called Hiroshima (1995), recounts a young girl’s life after the American atomic bomb is dropped on her city on August 6, 1945.
Mysteries and Recognition
Another of Yep’s better-known works is the first in another series, the Chinatown Mysteries: The Case of the Goblin Pearls. For his many contributions to young-adult literature, Yep won the Laura Ingalls Wilder medal from the American Library Association in 2005.
With his positive emphases on families and interpersonal relationships, on the search for identity and the importance of cultural heritage, and on tolerance and strength of character, Laurence Yep is a key writer in Asian-American literature for children and young adults. He creates works set in both modern and past times that interest younger readers while maintaining historical integrity. His versatility and range of material, from science fiction and Chinese folktales to historical novels and modern-day adventures, mark him as a major writer.
Works in Literary Context
Yep has often used Chinese fables as the basis for his engaging stories. The Boy Who Swallowed Snakes (1994), for example, tells of a boy named Little Chou who gets rid of a dangerous magic snake by swallowing it. The snake doesn’t kill the virtuous boy, as legend predicts, but instead multiplies a thousand-fold, until the greedy man who planted the snake thinking it would bring him riches returns to claim it and is destroyed. Equally engaging is The City of Dragons (1995), about a young boy with the world’s saddest face who leaves his family in disgrace to travel with a band of giants to the City of Dragons. The giants tell sad tales to make the dragons cry, for dragon tears turn to pearls, but to no avail. When the dragons see the boy’s face, however, they are overcome with sorrow, and their tears provide the boy with the riches that return him to his family a hero. In The Ghost Fox (1994), an evil fox spirit comes to poison the soul of Little Lee’s mother, turning her against the boy in his father’s absence. The mother grows angry and cruel, turning Little Lee from their home, but Lee proves to be even more clever and courageous than the crafty fox, and he eventually banishes the fox and reclaims the love of his mother. The tale exploits every child’s fear of losing their mother’s love, but offers the pleasing moral that love conquers in the end.
Yep has made significant contributions to several genres of children’s fiction. During the 1980s he wrote three mysteries, two of which—The Mark Twain Murders (1982) and The Tom Sawyer Fires (1984)—feature as their main character nineteenth-century American writer Mark Twain as a young reporter in San Francisco. In 1997 Yep introduced the Chinatown Mystery series with The Case of the Goblin Pearls. In this captivating novel twelve-year-old Lily joins forces with a great aunt named Tiger Lil, a character actress with a forceful personality, to solve the mystery behind a series of gang robberies. Yep is an avid proponent of the power of children’s literature. ”To write for children, one must try to see things as they do; and trying to look at the world with the fresh, inexperienced eyes of a child enables the writer to approach the world with a sense of wonder,” he wrote in Reading Teacher. Yep’s empathetic understanding of young people has brought him acclaim from critics and readers alike. ”There are scenes in Child of the Owl, Maxine Hong Kingston writes in Washington Post Book World, ”that will make every Chinese-American child gasp with recognition. ‘Hey! That happened to me. I did that. I saw that.”’
Works in Critical Context
Many critics agree that Yep’s success as a writer is due more to his imaginative, well-paced writing style than to his subject matter, which covers a broad range of topics.
Yep provides the reader with a new way of viewing Chinese Americans, not as yellow men living in white society but as ordinary—as well as extraordinary— people. In his afterword to Dragonwings, he states: ”I wanted to show that Chinese-Americans are human beings upon whom America has had a unique effect.” Having been described by critics as sensitive, adventurous, and original, Dragonwings remains Yep’s most acclaimed and successful work, chosen as an ALA Notable Children’s Book in 1975 and selected as a Newbery Honor Book for 1976. Critics applauded the complexity of Yep’s characters and his sensitive portrayal of the prejudice they faced in the United States. Frank Chin, for instance, writes, ”In Dragonwings, Yep has written an Asian-American folklore that will someday be as deeply rooted in American folklore as Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.” Additionally, Ruth H. Pelmas writes that, ”as an exquisitely written poem of praise to the courage and industry of the Chinese-American people, Dragonwings is a triumph.”
- Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia.: Temple University Press, 1982.
- Lim, Shirley Geok-lin and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia.: Temple University Press, 1992.
- Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
- Bush, Margaret A. ”Laurence Yep the Traitor.” The Horn Book Magazine (March-April 2003): 219.
- Chin, Frank. Review of Dragonwings. Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 7.2 & 3 (1976).
- Kingston, Maxine Hong. ”Middle Kingdom to Middle America.” Washington Post Book World (May 1, 1977): E1, E8.
- Pelmas, Ruth H. Review of Dragonwings. New York Times Book Review (November 16, 1975).
- Yep, Laurence. ”Writing Dragonwings.” Reading Teacher (January 1977): 359-363.
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