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Presenting Laurence Yep

Laurence Yep is noted for creating vivid and complex characters based on his own experiences. Yep’s most famous work is Dragonwings. It has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor for 1976, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award for 1976, and the American Library Association’s Notable Children’s Book Award for 1975 (Johnson-Feelings 353). The story starts at the turn of the century when Moon Shadow moves to America to live with his father who he has never met. Moon Shadow’s father, Windrider, is an expert kite maker, but he works in a laundry in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The men there are a close group. None of them has been allowed to bring his wife over to the U. S. and so they have become a family in themselves. The first night Moon Shadow is in America, Windrider tells him of a dream he had several years before that told him he must learn to fly in this lifetime. Windrider explains that this is his main goal in life, second only to bringing his wife to the U. S. Moon Shadow and Windrider live as happily as can be expected in a highly racist city for a while, but when Uncle’s opium-addicted son beats Moon Shadow until he’s unconscious, things get tense. Windrider confronts Uncle’s son and a group of his friends and in the fight kills a man.

The two must leave Chinatown until the trouble has passed. They move into a white area, where Windrider gets a job as a handyman. It is dangerous for them to live in this area because Chinese-Americans are often killed in San Francisco at this time with no repercussions. Moon Shadow has to stay in the house when his father is away to avoid being hurt by the neighborhood boys. There are happy times though. The father and son become good friends with their landlord, Mrs. Whitlaw and her niece Robin. Moon Shadow often sits with them and exchanges stories of China for their stories of American life.

Also, Windrider begins to experiment with models of airplanes so that he can master the basics of flight. When the 1906 earthquake hits, the family’s world is shattered. Their home is destroyed and they must move to Golden Gate Park and camp out there until they can build a place to live. They reunite with the men from the laundry and together they all rebuild their business, but when the construction is finished, Moon Shadow and Windrider move across the Bay to Oakland so that Windrider can concentrate fully on building his airplane.

Times are very hard for the father and son when they are working on the plane. They have little money for food and have to stretch to pay the rent each month. Finally the aircraft is finished and they are ready to fly it, but they have run out of money and have no way to get the plane to the top of the hills to launch it. Uncle and the men from the laundry come over though and they all help to haul the plane up the hill. Windrider launches the plane and manages to fly for twenty minutes before a bolt on the propeller comes loose and the plane crashes.

Windrider is not seriously hurt. He decides though, that he no longer wants to concentrate on flying but would rather save money to bring his wife over to the U. S. Growing up in a society that was nothing like his culture, Yep gained much insight from his surroundings. Yep was born in 1948. His father, Yep Gim Lew, was born in China and moved to America when he was ten. He married Franche Lee, an American born in Lima, Ohio. Yep lived in a black neighborhood, from which he took a bus to a Chinese school. He was made fun of for not speaking Chinese.

His first encounter with whites wasn’t until high school. Yep’s alienation began at an early age because he came from a Chinese-American family, so in his mind, he wasn’t quite American. He didn’t want to be Chinese and believed that being Chinese was associated with the artificial and commercial “Asian-ness of Chinatown’s tourist-attracting store windows” (Johnson-Feelings, Lewis 401). In Dragonwings, Windrider treats Moon Shadow as an adult, brother, partner and friend. It took Yep six years of research on China and its history to create Dragonwings (Bernard 209).

A real Chinese-American who flew a flying machine in 1909 inspired the book (Bernard 209). Yep distinguishes carefully between individuals within the broader spectrum of class and ethnic difference. In his works, Laurence Yep doesn’t stereotype all whites as villains or all Chinese as sympathetic. Yep’s creation of many emotional and distinct characters that acknowledge the difficulties of youth can be attributed to his childhood explorations of alienation. From birth, Yep had no one culture to call his own.

Growing up Chinese-American provided a “double set of eyes” (Johnson-Feelings, Lewis 401). Through his experience as a child, Yep has gained a great amount of insight into what it means to identify with three groups, Chinese, blacks and whites (Johnson-Feelings, Lewis 401). Over the years, these vast experiences have culminated into Yep’s ability to create unparalleled characters (Johnson-Feelings, Lewis 401). Yep’s grandmother, Marie Lee, may have been his greatest influence. She kept him linked to his Chinese heritage the most.

She represented a Chineseness’ in my life that was as immovable and unwanted as a mountain in your living room” (Chua 350). This knowledge, though, didn’t reflect until Yep’s first story, a science fiction adventure, published while he was in high school. In all of his stories, Yep examines the characters’ otherness through common themes: alienation, isolation, class conflicts, gender conflicts and cultural history (Johnson-Feelings, Lewis 400). The characters of Yep’s stories contend with the same problems as they seek self-identity and peace in their environments (Johnson-Feelings, Lewis 400).

Similar motifs, such as family, past and imagination are also woven through his works and characters. Many critics have given praise to Yep for his uncanny ability to create excellent characters. Francis J. Molsen said that “[Yep] has deliberately and effectively sought to confront racial stereotyping, and these novels have been praised because they have repaired some of the harm inflicted by racist persistence in describing Chinese or Chinese-Americans” (Drew 530). Regarding Shadow Lord, Roberta Rogow said, “Prince Vikram and his people are well depicted” (Bernard 207).

Yep’s conception of dragons as noble and heroic is an interesting departure from their villainous portrayal in much of western folklore and fantasy”, said Joel Taxel (Bernard 208). In Children’s Literature Review, Denise M. Wilmes stated, the “Dialogue [of Liar Liar] is crisp, and Sean is a sympathetic victim who matures over the course of the story”. Also, “Each of the three main characters is marked by a strong personality, so that dramatic tension stays high and general interaction between Skimmer and Thorn is lively”(Bernard 206).

Donald Kao says of Sea Glass, “Craig is not a star, yet he is a full human being who strives only for those things that make sense” and “Yep effectively counters many of the rigid race, sex and age biases that exist in other books”. Jack Forman stated about Sea Glass, “The first person narrative is sensitive and perceptive” (Bernard 205, 204). Donna E. Norton stated, “The characters [of Dragonwings] are strong people who retain their values and respect for their heritage while adjusting to a new country” (Bernard 204).

As shown in the above research, Laurence Yep has overcome many hardships and has used his experiences to create vivid and complex characters. Many critics have given praise to Yep for his uncanny ability to create excellent characters. Yep gained much insight from his surroundings because his childhood was in a society that was nothing like his culture. Yep’s creation of many emotional and distinct characters can be attributed to his childhood explorations of alienation.

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