Review: Tofu Quilt

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell. Lee & Low Books. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Poems tell the story of Yeung Ying growing up in Hong Kong, from age five to twelve.

The Good: The poetry is simple but not simplistic; a tremendous amount is conveyed in a handful of words.

Yeung Ying first learns the power of story, of words, in several ways: as a small child, memorizing poetry brings the reward of dan lai, a special custard. She writes letters for her grandmother, is read stories by her teachers, and an older cousin says she could be a writer when she grows up. In short but powerful poems, one year a teacher makes her believe her dream is possible by saying “great work” and displaying her poetry while another teacher crushes her by calling a story the “worst story in the class.” Luckily, another year brings a teacher who praises her work and restores her confidence leading to Yeung Ying submitting a story to a paper. It is accepted: she is on her way.

Tofu Quilt is not just the story of a girl becoming a writer; it is also about a girl getting an education. Set in the 1960s, Yeung Ying’s family is repeatedly told by family and friends that educating a girl is a waste of money. The money could be spent elsewhere, Yeung Ying could be working to bring in money. Yeung Ying’s mother stands up repeatedly for her daughter, providing the schooling that makes it possible for Yeung Ying’s dreams to come true. While sexism is the primary reason for relatives counseling against the wisdom of educating a girl, another reason is that Yeung Ying’s family doesn’t have much money. Her father is a tailor and some times, work is good, like when American soldiers come over from Vietnam. Other times, not so much. Russel relates the family closing the door to avoid gossips seeing what they are and aren’t eating, and the “tofu quilt” her father makes from leftover fabric scraps.  

At the same time, Russel is portraying the worlds of Hong Kong and China. Yeung Ying writes letters for family members, because they cannot get visas to travel to see each other. Other details of life and politics are provided, creating a vibrant look at Yeung Ying’s world.

What age? I would recommend this to readers from third grade to sixth. The language, and Yeung Ying’s age, makes this appealing to the younger age group, while the topics (education, sexism, writing, career) have an appeal to the older readers.

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Review: Yummy

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Lee & Low. 2010. Graphic Novel. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: A fictionalized account of the life and death of eleven year old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.

The Good: Yummy’s story was brought to national attention in a 1994 Time Magazine article, Murder in Miniature.  Yummy’s life was short and brutal, full of abuse and neglect. Raised in Chicago, he was a member of the Black Disciples. Because of his age, when he was arrested for the crimes he committed he was let out: “see, back then, the laws were set up so that no shorty [i.e., someone as young as Yummy] could be convicted of a felony. Even for the worst crime, they’d be sent to Juvie and be back on the streets by the time they were 21. So the gangs put shorties to work.” At eleven, Yummy’s crimes escalated from robbery and arson to murder when he shot at gang rivals and accidentally killed an innocent fourteen year old girl, Shavon Dean. Yummy hid from the police for several days; at first, his gang assisted him. When they realized that Yummy had become a liability, he was killed by two of his fellow gang members, brothers aged fourteen and sixteen.

  Neri only fictionalizes the framing device to tell Yummy’s story, creating a young neighbor (Roger) to show Yummy’s life, the different views people had of him, and the impact of Yummy’s life on those around him. Neri’s website has additional resources; reading them, exploring more, shows that all the quotes about Yummy and his life are pulled from primary sources.

Using a graphic novel format to tell Yummy’s story creates a sense of immediacy, of being there with Roger and Yummy. Violence is spoken about, but what is shown is not explicit. It’s just enough to show the horror, the loss, the death, without being gratuitous. DuBurke’s black and white illustrations bring the reader into the story, removing any safe distance from Yummy. It also presents the story to those kids who would never pick up a “real book” — a novel, historical fiction — but will pick up a graphic novel.

There is nothing glamorous about Yummy; it is tragic, a waste. By using Roger as a  narrator, Neri can ask questions — how did this happen? Could something have been done different? Did Yummy have choices? What about those around him?  A final note from Neri does not answer the question as to whether Yummy was “a cold-blooded killer or a victim,” but does clearly give a take away to readers: “Like the preacher at Yummy’s funeral said: make up your mind that you will not let your life end like Yummy’s. Easier said than done, no doubt. But if you can find a way to make the choice of life, then other decisions may be easier. Choose wisely.”

In addition to the choices that Yummy faced, and the choices of other young men and women in similar circumstances, Yummy raises questions of both juvenile justice and the social welfare system. Yummy didn’t just fall between the cracks — he fell between the cracks over and over and over. Was there a point when something different could have been done so that Yummy could have been saved — or, could have realized he had different choices?

This is a middle school book, with its prime readership being those who, like Yummy, are about to face choices; and those who need to see the dark side of what they may see as a glamorous life.