Archive for Current Events

Revisiting THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS — A Chinese American Perspective with Phoebe Yeh, VP and Publisher at Crown Books

We recently witnessed the kerfuffle regarding Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to no longer publish six titles that it deemed offensive. It brought to mind an experience I had back in the late 1980s when I worked at Scholastic. So I reached out to my old friend, Phoebe Yeh, to ask her about it. Like me, Phoebe was young at the time, an editorial assistant for our beloved friend, Craig Walker. These days Phoebe is kind of a big deal, a widely respected VP/Publisher of Books for Young Readers at Crown, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

Honestly, I’m just grateful she answered my email. 

Jimmy? Jimmy who?”

 

 

Phoebe, thanks for taking some time out for this topic. I know that it’s close to your heart. We met in 1986, back when I was a junior copywriter at Scholastic and you were hired as Craig Walker’s editorial assistant. We were both earning salaries in the (barely) five figures. I remember talking with you about the 1938 book, The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop. It was your mission in life, it seemed, to produce a new, authentic retelling of that ancient Chinese folktale. You were deeply offended by Kurt Weise’s illustrations. Can you remember what your feelings were at the time?

Yes, indeed.  And even though more thirty years have passed, my opinion about The Five Chinese Brothers hasn’t changed. Full disclosure: I grew up reading this book. As a child, I took the illustrations for granted, the slanty eyes, the yellow skin tone.

Fast forward. I’m basically in my first real job after college. I think I must have had a lot of nerve. I marched myself into my boss’ office even though I knew I was going to complain about a book that sold like crazy for See Saw Book Club (kindergarten/first grade readers).

I shared my reservations with Craig Walker — also sharing that it wasn’t like the author, Claire Bishop, had even come up with the premise. I had read Chinese versions of the story about the brothers with the super powers but Bishop had added whipped cream or some such to her version. And everyone knows, many Chinese people are lactose intolerant so adding this detail made no sense.

 

Craig was incredibly supportive and felt that we should bring up the idea of publishing a new version with our editor-in-chief, Jean Feiwel.  The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng, became my first acquisition as an editorial assistant (still virtually unheard of -– usually you don’t start acquiring until you are, at least, an assistant editor).  And prideful though it sounds, this version is still in print.

What was challenging for me was that I LOVED that book as a kid. It was such a great story. One brother drinking the whole ocean! Another brother with the unbreakable iron neck! I read it over and over again. And I wasn’t the least bit offended by any of it! So talking to you, on one level, I could intellectually understand where you were coming from . . . but I didn’t feel you, if you know what I mean. It was a long time ago, I had a lot to learn (still do!), and I wondered at first if perhaps you might be over-reacting. What was I missing?

Jimmy, you weren’t missing anything.  How would you know?  How could you know? I didn’t know either, when I was reading the book as a kid.  But by the time I was at my first job, I had read Maxine Hong Kingston and Zora Neale Hurston, other women writers who weren’t “taught” in high school, poetry and novels about the European exploitation in African and Caribbean nations.  I subscribed to a weekly newspaper, Asian Week that enumerated crimes and other discriminatory incidents against Asian Americans.  My second encounter with The Five Chinese Brothers was informed by this context.

I knew that there was a way to retain the humor, the absurdity without ridicule.  And since I don’t have slanty eyes, there should be a way to show the brothers more authentically. To be fair, an educator colleague who was raised in Taiwan, doesn’t have the same issue with The Five Chinese Brothers.  But she also recognizes that Chinese Americans have a problematic history: we are the only immigrant group who had not one but two exclusion acts forbidding entry; the trauma of building the Transcontinental Railroad, etc etc so in the mid 80’s,  I was interpreting the Bishop book from a vastly different lens.

I’m curious. Do you think your version of Seven Brothers could be criticized by today’s standards for going with a white author from New Zealand? In today’s world, would you have worked harder to find an “authentic” retelling by a Chinese American author?

We signed up Margaret Mahy, a non-Chinese American author after a fruitless search to find a Chinese American who was interested in writing a children’s book. I tried everyone — Maxine, Bette Bao Lord, Nien Cheng, etc and I think this was before Amy Tan. I didn’t approach Larry Yep because I erroneously thought he only wrote MG. So I found an author who could do justice to the humor. To her credit, Mahy was worried about authenticity/sensitivity but I knew I could walk her thru it because of my background. I didn’t speak a word of English until I was 3. I took Chinese (language) classes in college and lived in Taiwan for a year after college. And I felt confident that I had context and resources if questions arose. So besides being a gifted writer, Mahy knew what she didn’t know, a key, I believe, to writing about a protagonist who isn’t from your background. The illustrators had enormous context and experience. This also made me feel that we could do justice to this new version.

I remember your great pride and deep satisfaction when you signed up a new, updated retelling. That was a book you fought for. And I can still see the pleasure on your face on the day when the Tsengs’ art came into the office. As a Chinese American, can you express what it meant to you then — and what it means to you today — to make that kind of difference in a children’s book?

 

I was thrilled (and relieved) when The Seven Chinese Brothers received critical attention. And that it sold, proving my point that a new version would resonate. I loved seeing it in bookstores. But even better, finding it in libraries and school classrooms.

Fast forward to a midpoint in my publishing career, when I signed up Ellen Oh to write her first children’s book, Prophecy (Ellen  later became a co-founder of WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS). But guess what book was the first time she saw Asian characters: The Seven Chinese Brothers.

 

Recently I had a similar moment with another Asian American who was creating children’s books for MOMA.  Unlike Ellen, who grew up in Brooklyn, this gentleman was raised in New England.  He told me the same thing.  Until The Seven Chinese Brothers, he hadn’t seen a children’s book with Asians depicted without mockery.  Who knew that one book could have this kind of impact?

Things are so much better now but in the mid-80’s when I started in children’s publishing, there was a dearth.  I’m profoundly grateful to Craig and Jean for giving me a chance, one that has pretty much informed the rest of my children’s book career.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Phoebe — and for the  meaningful, important work you continue to do. Proud of you!

 

FUN FACT: The food at Phoebe’s wedding, somewhere in Chinatown, was amazing. On long winter nights, I still think about that meal thirty years later. But also: Jigsaw Jones has a best friend and a partner named Mila Yeh. So, yeah, that’s where I borrowed that name. A direct lift from Phoebe — because I was seeking something that evoked for me the qualities of tough, smart, loyal, fierce, kind.

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and a Children’s Literature Fundraiser Against Anti-AAPI Racism

 

 

Every alert reader of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series knows that Mila Yeh is the brains of the partnership. I mean, Jigsaw is no slouch, but his strength is his energy and never-say-die attitude. Jigsaw never, ever gives up. As his best friend and partner, Mila Yeh quietly keeps asking questions, coming up with clues and new ideas, keeping the investigations (and Jigsaw!) on track. I don’t know where he’d be without her. Theirs is an equal partnership; they split the profits 50-50. And I’m glad, today, that Mila Yeh stands as a bright, lively, caring, strong female character in the world of children’s books — who also happens to be Asian-American. Fun fact: Mila Yeh is named after my old friend at Scholastic, Phoebe Yeh, who is still editing books today. 

Mila Yeh arrives at the home office, singing a song, at the start of a new case in JIGSAW JONES: THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. Art by R.W. Alley.

 

It’s been upsetting and heartbreaking to read about how attacks on Asian-Americans are up in this country. I don’t fully understand it, though obviously the former president’s racist insistence on called the Coronavirus the “China Virus” has contributed to an ugly groundswell of hatred and blame.

Here’s some info from a fairly typical recent article, as reported by Alexandra E. Petri and Daniel E. Slotnik in The New York Times:

Hate crimes involving Asian-American victims soared in New York City last year. Officials are grappling with the problem even as new incidents occur.

Sam and Maggie Cheng on the street where their mother was attacked last week in Flushing, Queens.

Maggie Cheng could stand to watch the video only once.

“I’ve never cried like that before,” Ms. Cheng said, describing her reaction to security footage that showed her mother being shoved to the ground last week on a crowded street in Flushing, Queens. “To see my mother get thrown like that, she looks like a feather. She looks like a rag doll.”

The attack on Ms. Cheng’s mother, which was highlighted by celebrities and gained widespread attention on social media, was one of four against Asian-American women in New York City that day. Taken together, they stoked fears that the wave of racism and violence that has targeted Asian-Americans during the pandemic was surging again in New York. Those concerns intensified after a man of Asian descent was stabbed Thursday night near Chinatown.

The number of hate crimes with Asian-American victims reported to the New York Police Department jumped to 28 in 2020, from just three the previous year, though activists and police officials say many additional incidents were not classified as hate crimes or went unreported.

<snip>

In New York City, where Asian-Americans make up an estimated 16 percent of the population, the violence has terrified many.

“The attacks are random, and they are fast and furious,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, a nonprofit network of community groups. “It has stoked a lot of fear and paranoia. People are not leaving their homes.”

<snip>

The increase in attacks in the city mirrors a trend across the United States. Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative that tracks violence and harassment against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, recorded more than 3,000 reported incidents from the start of the pandemic, said Russell Jeung, one of the group’s leaders and chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. Of those, at least 260 were in New York City.

These attacks have lasting effects, said Kellina Craig-Henderson, who works for the National Science Foundation and has studied the psychological impact of hate crimes. She said that people targeted because of their race and ethnicity can suffer ailments like post-traumatic stress disorder, often more acutely than victims of other crimes.

“If you’re a minority person and this happens to you, you’re going to be more fearful, you’re going to question your place in the world,” Dr. Craig-Henderson said.

I think many of us ask, “What can I do?”

It’s hard to know. We’re all different. One answer that I like is . . . to do what you’ve always done, but with more intention. You don’t have to become a new person, or a raging activist if that isn’t your comfort zone. Attend a rally, have a conversation, make a phone call, write a book, spread the kindness — find a way, even a small way, to make a difference.

One group of children’s literature professionals has put together an auction fundraiser. That’s one thing you can do. Click here — and give. I learned about it too late to contribute. But if you or your classroom does give to this cause in any many you see fit, doesn’t have to be this particular fundraiser, let me know at jamespreller@aol.com and I’ll send you a signed book (until supplies last).

Guerrilla Art: Bust of York Mysteriously Appears in Portland, OR, Park

I’m loving the story of a statue that mysteriously appeared in a Portland, Oregon, pubic park — reportedly without the knowledge of city leaders. The statue is of York, an enslaved man who participated in the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The only Black man to make the two-and-a-half-year journey. 

From the 2/22 New York Times, written by Alan Yuhas:

Over two years, York trekked some 8,000 miles from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest and back, hunting, tracking, foraging and, at least once, voting as a Black man held in bondage by another, more famous member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Last weekend, almost 215 years after the group made it back to Missouri, a large bust of York was raised in a Portland, Ore., park without fanfare or explanation, on the spot where a statue of a prominent conservative had been toppled last year. City leaders, acknowledging that they had no idea who put the monument to York there, said it looked great.

“This is what we’re calling guerrilla public art, but it was a pleasant surprise,” said Adena Long, the director of Portland’s parks bureau. York, she said in an interview, is “a figure that in my mind that we need to do a better job of proactively and thoughtfully celebrating.”

Ms. Long said that she was not aware of any message about the bust from those responsible, but that it would be allowed to stand so long as it does not pose any safety risks, in line with a bureau policy regarding tributes. “We’re hopeful the artists will make themselves known so we can have a conversation, but it will stay,” she said.

Park officials, who received word of the bust on Saturday morning, believe it was installed the night before. The bust, apparently made of hardened plastic, portrays York as bald and looking down with a somber expression, above a plaque describing him as “the first African-American to cross North America and reach the Pacific Coast.”

I made sure to include York’s role in my novel, The Courage Test (2016 Library Guild Selection), which mirrors the historical exploration of Lewis & Clark with a fictional boy’s experiences following the same trail with his estranged father. 

Late in The Courage Test: Will and his father, a historian, are hiking along the Bitterroot Range. Will passes one evening by looking through one of his father’s books (pp. 142-144). They have this conversation:

Painting by Charles M. Russell, depicting York’s first encounter with disbelieving Hidatsa tribe member at Fort Mandan, 3/9/1805.

I come across a reproduction of a painting. I call to my father, “Hey, Dad, who’s the Black guy?”

He glances over; I hold the book up to show him the picture.

“That’s York, Clark’s slave. He came along on the trip.”

I take this in for a moment. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before. They actually brought a slave across the country. And somehow that’s not totally creepy?

“They dragged him along, like you dragged me,” I say.

“Hardly,” my father scoffs. “You’re just another spoiled kid who watches too much television. York was a real slave. William Clark owned him. They grew up together.”

Chill, Dad, I was joking. I know I’m not actually a slave.

“Wherever the expedition traveled, the Native people were amazed by York, who by all reports was very large and muscular,” my father the professor can’t help but explain. “They’d never seen a Black man before. On at least one occasion, the Native people rubbed dirt on his skin to try to make it come off.”

“So did Clark let him go free after the trip?” I ask.

“No, things got even worse,” my father says. “After they returned, York argued for his freedom. He said, in essence, ‘Look, I traveled as an equal with all of you for two and a half years. We hunted, hauled, and faced many dangers together. Every man was paid money and given land. All except for me. I got nothing. So in payment, I ask you, please set me free.'”

I waited. “And?”

“He got bupkis.”

“Bupkis?” I asked.

“It’s a Yiddish word. It means ‘nothing.’ Clark wouldn’t do it. He refused to grant York his freedom. In fact, in later years Clark became quite unhappy with York, who he considered impudent.

Impudent? Dad! Speak English!

“It means, ‘not showing due respect,'” my father explains. He sighs, runs a hand across his jaw. “Times were different back then.”

“I guess so,” I say, thinking about how much changes, and how much seems to stay the same.

 

I wrote in an “Author’s Note” at the end of the book:

Painting by Michael Haynes, depicting a hunt as recorded in Meriwether Lewis’s journals.

York, a slave — a man owned as the property of William Clark — eventually did earn his freedom, though it took at least ten years after the expedition’s triumphant return before Clark freed him. The historic record is incomplete and conflicting, as if York was a man little worth noting. One legend has York returning to upper Missouri as a free man, going off to live with a tribe of Crow. However, most historians believe that York contacted cholera and died somewhere in Tennessee after working in the trade industry. The exact date and location of his death remains unknown. In many ways, York’s stunted life serves to illuminate the tragic, cruel legacy of slavery in America. 

REVIEWS FOR THE COURAGE TEST . . .

 

“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..”School Library Journal.

“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here. — Elizabeth Bush, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids — tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home.”—Booklist, Starred Review

 

2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION!

A Tribute to Jigsaw Puzzles (We Go Way Back)

 

Preliminary sketch by R.W. Alley for THE CASE OF THE HAT BURGLAR, a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

My name is James Preller and I have a problem.

It goes something like this:

My wife Lisa yawns, says, “I’m going up to bed.”

I stand by the large dining room table. It’s almost 10:30. There’s a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle spread out before me, halfway done. The edges, the easy parts, in place. There’s still about 500 loose pieces that all look, at a glance, the same. That’s the thing about puzzles: glancing won’t get it done. You’ve got to scrutinize. 

Lisa goes up, I remain. Just be a minute, I say. Time passes. At around 2:30, bleary and blurry and buzzing, I drag myself away.

Something happens when we break out the puzzles. I get a little obsessive. Okay, a lot obsessive.

Help me.

Quick flashback: I am a shy kid in an afternoon kindergarten class with Miss Croke in Wantagh, Long Island. She seems nice. Tall with glasses. The other kids strike me as boisterous and messy and problematic, especially one girl named Kathy who keeps threatening to hug me.

The way I cope is to stick to myself and do jigsaw puzzles. One after another after another. I have clear memories of this. Miss Croke coming along, sweetly asking if I’d like to, you know, do anything else besides puzzles? No, I’m good, I assured her. I was not unhappy, just quiet and reserved and, okay, a little freaked out.

(Like most shy kids, once I’m back home I won’t shut up — even after it’s forcefully suggested.)

Later, in 1997, I started writing a mystery series for young readers. At first, I didn’t have the name of the main character. I used Otis as a placeholder. Then Theodore. I decided he loves puzzles. That made sense to me, a detective would enjoy assembling the clues, piecing them together to create a full picture of the truth.

My editor, Helen Perelman, pulled a line from that first book, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster, tweaked it, and used it as a tagline: “Jigsaw puzzles are like mysteries — you’ve got to look at all the pieces to solve the case.”

Excerpt from THE CASE OF HERMIE THE MISSING HAMSTER.

So here I am, along with everybody else in May, 2020, hunkering down to COVID-19, quiet and reserved and still a little freaked. Once again busting out the jigsaw puzzles. In fact, I recently texted my friend, Corina, wondering if she was interested in a puzzle swap. Corina’s also an enthusiast, though I don’t sense it’s an affliction with her. She likes the Ravensburger puzzles whereas I have a preference for difficult nature scenes. We left a few boxes on our front stoops and made the masked exchange.

Looking back on all that, I suppose it wasn’t an accident I named him Jigsaw. 

There are 14 Jigsaw Jones titles currently available from Macmillan. (You should buy them all.) And in each one, there’s a moment when Jigsaw withdraws to spend time alone, deep in thought, working on a new jigsaw puzzle, thinking about the case.

Oh, almost forgot: I read aloud the entire book, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster, on my Youtube channel. It’s a series of five videos. Feel free to share them with young readers, that’s why I made them.

     

     

Poem: “Written at Four A.M.”

I don’t usually post my poems on this blog, but wrote this one last night, as the title suggests, and felt I might as well put it out there. I am quite sure that not everyone understands, or even considers, the terrible stress and anxiety that our healthcare workers are under. There are heroes among us, and they don’t wear capes.

 

 

Written at Four A.M.

– for Lisa, 3/29/20

 

My wife cannot sleep these nights.

She lies blanketed in worry,

rueing her sleeplessness and tasks

undone, so much still to be done,

and afraid of what’s to come:

hospital beds in cluttered corridors,

patients sharing ventilators, alone

and clawing for air and surcease;

the fear in everyone’s eyes; the nurse’s

front desk, so often a font of crude

jokes and late-night laughter, now

red-rimmed and fraught. Awakened,

I rouse and speak: it only annoys her,

so I rub Lisa’s back in night’s full dark,

resort to an old trick, and pick up

a bedside book of poems, Philip Larkin’s

The Less Deceived, to read aloud.

It never fails. My good wife listens and

only half-hears, the words washing over

her in waves, undulant images, a mind

open like a drawer of knives, a hometown

recalled, a horse troubled by flies. Finally

I reach the last poem, read it twice

as I often do. Lay down the book,

the reading glasses, fumble with

the light. It rains outside our window,

a soft pattering urgency, dawn’s chorus

still two hours from us, if it comes

at all. But listen: at last she sleeps. I yawn,

thinking of poems and hospital beds,

and cough.

 

 

My wife, Lisa, is a midwife at Albany Obstetrics & Gynecology. Her work often finds her in the maternity ward of St. Peter’s Hospital. She’s also recently created a Facebook page, Reproductive Health at Home, which you can follow in these days when access to healthcare is challenging. These are hard times, and very scary for many. I write children’s books, a far less perilous venture. In support of teachers and parents as they scramble to provide online learning for young readers, I’ve created a variety of free videos for ages 3-14. You may access them at my Youtube channel. Just stomp on this link and it’ll bring you there.

Be smart, stay home, protect the vulnerable.