Category Archives: .Biography

One Step at a Time : A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

One Step at a TimeIntroduced to U.S. readers by award-winning Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch in last year’s Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, Son Thi Ahn Tuyet’s story continues – literally one step at a time. Now that Tuyet has a real home with her own real family – Dad, Mom, sisters Beth and Lara, and baby brother Aaron – she’s learning to finally feel safe. Nighttime still remains a bit scary when memories of war and tragedy return to haunt her dreams; no matter how nice her own room is, for now, Tuyet prefers to sleep safely “burrowed into her nest of pillows and covers on the throw rug between Beth and Lara’s beds.”

In addition to adapting to her new family and struggling to understand a culture so different from the one she left in a language she hasn’t yet learned, Tuyet prepares for some of the greatest physical challenges of her young life. The beautiful new red shoe and soft red slipper Mom bought for her polio-damaged feet and legs have already filled Tuyet’s heart with joyful smiles. Now Tuyet faces the first of multiple operations that will someday allow her to walk. In the 1970s, hospital rules did not allow for constant parental interaction as is today’s accepted norm; remarkably, Tuyet endured her surgeries virtually alone.

Thankfully, recovery proved to a full family affair: the whole Morris family not only made Tuyet physically comfortable, but each ensured that she was emotionally buoyed as well. From learning to blow out birthday “fire” and realizing that the beautiful wrapping paper is meant to be torn, to not grabbing her baby brother and seeking shelter at the sound of an airplane, to being able to balance well enough on her own two legs to kick a soccer ball, Tuyet takes her new life – and her steadily recovering legs – one glorious, triumphant step at a time.

“Thank you, Tuyet,” Skrypuch writes in her ending “Author’s Note,” “for allowing me to share your story.” Readers, too – especially younger readers who might be facing any sort of adversity – will surely appreciate Tuyet’s inspiring experiences. Step by step, Skrypuch shows with forthright clarity how Tuyet becomes her own very best hero.

Tidbit: Here’s an update (with pictures!) from Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch herself!

Last year, Last Airlift won the Red Cedar award in British Columbia and was a [2013] Red Maple Honour Book in Ontario. These awards are readers’ choice awards, where kids do the voting. For the Red Maple award, the Ontario Library Association hosts a huge event at Harbourfront in Toronto, with thousands of kids bussed in. I arranged for Tuyet to stand on the stage with me, and for her daughter to hold the sign and her son to introduce the book. We had long snaking line-ups for autographs, and many of the kids wanted Bria and Luke to sign their books in addition to me and Tuyet signing them. I’ve got some photos on my website. Check it out here:
♦   Last Airlift signing with Tuyet and her kids
♦   Red Maple Day at Harbourfront
♦   Tuyet and Red Maple Day

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Color of Water McBrideWhat writer and musician James McBride initially thought might take just six months to write required 14 long years to produce his now-almost-20-year-old debut title, The Color of Water. “Mommy” – McBride never calls her anything else – was never a cooperative subject: she shared her memories in her own good time, in between her endless warnings of “‘Mind your own business!’” and “‘Leave me alone. You’re a nosy-body!’”

Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, Mommy’s “parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky.” Her father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused his own family, her mother a long-suffering sweet woman partially paralyzed by polio. The five Shilskys – Mommy had an older brother and a U.S.-born younger sister – eventually settled in rural Suffolk, Virginia. At 17, Mommy escaped her miserable home life and found independence in New York City.

She became Ruth McBride when she married her first husband, Andrew McBride, a kind African American man who eventually became a minister and founded – with Mommy’s unwavering support and involvement – the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The as-yet unborn James was the 8th child of that union, which ended when Andrew died in 1957. He was not quite a year old when Mommy married the man James always called “Daddy,” Hunter Jordan, Sr., a “quiet, soft-spoken,” nattily-dressed African American furnace fireman for the NYC Housing Authority, with whom she had another four children. When Daddy died of a stroke in 1972, the hapa family was left in desperate poverty and yet Mommy miraculously managed to raise “twelve very creative and talented children.” Indeed, “her children’s achievements are her life’s work.”

Mommy’s story stayed on The New York Times‘ bestseller list for over two years. McBride has since written three novels, the latest of which, The Good Lord Bird, is currently a finalist in fiction for the 2013 National Book Award (the winner gets announced November 20). That his name has recently been popping up with regularity might be what prompted me to pick up Color again, although this time I decided to stick it in my ears.

As superbly written as this now-classic memoir is, the audible version manages to be markedly better. Truly. The unforgettable André Braugher gives elegant, commanding voice to McBride, but even more spectacular is inimitable Lainie Kazan who completely embodies “Mommy” in one of the best book performances I’ve ever heard. Although Mommy passed away at age 88 in 2010, Kazan’s riveting narration ensures she lives on and on and on …

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African American, Hapa

The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Poet Slave of CubaAwarded the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal, “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth,” Margarita Engle‘s biography-in-verse introduces Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano to younger readers.

Born into slavery in 1797 to a titled family, Juan is quickly adopted – in the way pets are claimed – by the wife of a wealthy plantation owner he refers to as La Marquesa: “The boy is much cleaner than poodles and parrots / or the Persian cats … / I treat him like my own / I tell him he’s the child of my old age.” He must call her Mamá, even though he has a loving mother and father of his own; La Marquesa pampers him, while he performs her every request.

By the time La Marquesa passes away when Juan is 11, she has allowed his parents to buy their freedom and promised Juan’s upon her death, but instead, he is sent to his so-called godparents where his new owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, treats him as a prized possession she both abhors and cherishes. His near-death experiences of violent abuse are countless, and often he is saved just in time by his cruel owner’s son, who both admires and cares for Juan like a sibling. In spite of all that horror, Juan manages to find inspiring solace in the power of words.

Engle enriches Juan’s own story with the rotating voices of his parents, his owners, his defender Don Nicolás, and even “The Overseer” who comes to feel shame for the abhorrent beatings he is forced to inflict on Juan. The result proves to be a celebration of a remarkable life of tenacity and imagination that miraculously rises out of tortuous conditions. If you choose the audible option, you’ll be rewarded with a full-cast performance, although it’s slightly marred by a strangely affected narration of La Marquesa de Prado Amano; oddly, narrator Yesenia Cabrero has no such issues when she voices Juan’s mother’s passages. If stuck-in-the-ears is how you read, make sure to still check out the page as Sean Qualls‘ gentle drawings are certainly worth a special visit to your library or local bookstore.

That Juan Francisco Manzano’s literary legacy survives more than two centuries after his birth, is inspiring testimony to both his difficult life and his creative accomplishments. And, that Engle – herself a Cuban American poet, as well as novelist and journalist – received over a dozen awards and honors for Slave seems surely to be poetic justice indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Latino/a

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry

Furious CoolThe latest biography of “the world’s most brilliant stand-up comedian” is the culmination of a project that took more than a decade (originally intended as a three-act screenplay) by screenwriter David Henry and his brother, musician Joe Henry. Born in 1940 in Peoria, IL, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was raised by his grandmother, who ran a brothel in which his mother “also turned tricks.” Raped at five by a teenage bully (who, decades later, appeared with his son seeking Pryor’s autograph), Pryor found respite from his oppressive childhood by acting in local theater.

Leaving the first of six wives and his first two (of seven) children, Pryor arrived in New York City in 1963, embarking on a career that spanned clubs, television, and film, finding unparalleled success as a black performer in a racially stratified industry. Universally lauded as a genius, Pryor never overcame his drug addictions, spectacularly exemplified by his 1980 freebasing-induced self-immolation.

Verdict: More a compilation of assiduous research than a narrative – with irreverent profanity that echoes Pryor’s performances – this book should succeed in introducing a legend to new generations. Readers raised on dystopia will find Pryor’s life tragically epic.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, September 1, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, African American

I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Arthur Flowers, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar, designed by Guglielmo Rossi

I See the Promised LandArthur Flowers, a “blues-based” performance poet, musician, and professor, introduces himself as “Rickydoc Trickmaster,” to render the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a biography for younger readers, as traditional Patua Indian scroll painter Manu Chitrakar brings Flowers’ recitation to vibrant life. Their combined efforts create an outstanding cultural hybrid of unexpected storytelling and graphic traditions. Unlike the majority of children’s titles which celebrate and sustain only MLK’s iconic leadership, this collaboration clearly distinguishes itself by bearing witness (surprise, surprise!) to his stumbles and failures, as well.

Flowers realizes that to understand MLK’s legend is to have awareness of the context in which he rose to prominence: the legacy of slavery, the decimation of a people’s psyche, the continued injustices almost a century after laws were changed. “This is the world into which Martin Luther King is born,” he explains. “This is the world that provide the call he come to answer.”

I See balances the legacy of the epic leader who hit his pinnacle with his defining “I Have a Dream”-speech ["King is at the top of his game"], with his difficult, lesser known personal struggles. Flowers is frank and direct about King’s philandering (his confessions caught on wire-tap by J. Edgar Hoover were sent to King’s family on the day he was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize!), his ego (his tendency to “rather lovingly list” his awards in public), his misjudgments (being accused of “being an Uncle Tom” – although Flowers also argues Uncle Tom “has gotten a bad rap”), and his desperate attempts to revive his declining leadership (“run out of Chicago … and his nonviolence strategy has been immolated in the fires of Watts”).

Yes, MLK was human, after all, Flowers contends. But he also reminds, “The Civil War may have delivered the blacks from slavery, but it was Martin Luther King delivered us from bondage.” With Flowers story told, Chitrakar’s panels finished, “… this spell is done. God’s blessings on us all.” A resounding amen to that.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010 (India), 2013 (revised edition, Canada and United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Nonfiction, African American, Indian, South Asian

pepita: Inoue meets Gaudí by Takehiko Inoue, translated by Emi Louie-Nishikawa

PepitaA biography, a travel memoir, and a piece of art landed on my desk … as a single book. Verdict? This latest translated-into-English title by mega-bestselling manga creator Takehiko Inoue (Vagabond, Real) is a gorgeous hybrid compilation of text, sketches, photographs, and memories.

Antoni Gaudí is perhaps best known as the architect of the still-unfinished La Sagrada Família, his iconic Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain. Inoue’s first impression of the massive work-in-progess during a 1992 visit, he confesses, called to mind words such as “‘deformed,’” “‘strange,’” “‘extravagant.’” He admits, “At the time, my eyes were that of an ignorant and apathetic tourist.” Almost two decades later, Inoue returned to Spain in 2011, when he “retraced Gaudí’s footprints and visited several of his architectural works … and in Gaudí’s structures I experienced the true meaning of the word humility for the first time in my life.” Throughout discovering Gaudí’s works anew, Inoue searches for “‘the seed [the eponymous pepita] of creation,’” both the architect’s and his own.

Inoue’s travels take him from Gaudí’s childhood homes to a final stop at the Façana de la Glòria, one of three La Sagrada Família’s three façades, where Inoue will literally leave his mark. He explores Gaudí’s origins, his compromised health as a child, his family relationships, the effect of too many early deaths around him, and of course his development as an artist. Gaudí’s neverending wonder and respect for nature, his “joys of creation,” prove especially inspiring for Inoue: the ultimate result, “I learned more about myself.”

As appreciative as Inoue is of his “optimal” experiences in Spain, Inoue also realizes that travel to the other side of the world is not always necessary for ‘optimal’ creation: “There are teachers everywhere. The answer can come from anybody. Perhaps I just needed …to remove the lid over my eyes that was blocking my ability to see.” Heed this master: your inspiring pepita of creation just might be right in front of you …

Tidbit: For must-know-every-detail type readers, Viz Media’s meticulous English edition is especially thorough: the last two pages provides citations, experts’ names and titles, and even translations from Inoue’s annotations on his sketches!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011 (Japan), 2013 (United States)
© I.T. Planning, Inc. © Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.
Original Japanese edition published by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Japanese

As Fast As Words Could Fly by Pamela M. Tuck, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

As Fast As Words Could FlyIn segregated Greenville, North Carolina, 14-year-old Mason Steele has the rare talent to transcribe his father’s impassioned descriptions of civil rights incidents into effective business letters determined to educate and change people’s minds. His father’s civil rights group rewards young Mason’s efforts with a typewriter. With patience and dedication, Mason learns every letter and symbol of the shiny machine.

That fall, local school segregation ends – at least by law. But when Mason and his brothers begin at Belvoir High, the bus will not stop to pick them up. Even their summer friends warn, “‘You Steele boys are asking for trouble.’” Mason proves to be a good student, regardless of the rude principal, the unfriendly teachers who call him ‘boy,’ the unwelcoming students. He is especially adept at typing, so much so that he is grudgingly allowed to represent Belvoir at a county typing competition. Under Mason’s fingers, the keys move as fast as words could fly …

Pamela M. Tuck‘s ending “Author’s Note” reveals her book is “based on the real-life experiences of my father, Moses Teel Jr., during the 1960s.” As her father provided the words for his own father, Tuck does the same for her father, transcribing his memories into this inspiring book, richly enhanced by Eric Velasquez‘s evocative, detailed illustrations. Father and daughter’s multi-generational accomplishment is an effective reminder that “ordinary people … played an integral part in moving our country in this direction [toward tolerance and the acceptance of diversity]. Their hard work, determination, and courage set an example for all who face challenges to their rights and freedoms.”

Although Tuck won favorite multi-culti children’s publisher Lee & Low’s New Voices Award in 2007, that her Words hit shelves earlier this year couldn’t be more timely. The reactions during this first week following the July 13, 2013 George Zimmerman verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, including President Obama’s highly personal speech on Friday, July 19 ["Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago"], clearly show our society – a half-century after the events in Tuck’s title – still faces daily challenges to protecting rights and freedoms for all. Books like this remain as necessary as ever to teach our children, teach them early, teach them well. President Obama encourages: ” … we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long and difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.” That, indeed, is the audacity of hope for us all.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Biography, .Fiction, African American

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look, illustrated by Meilo So

Brush of the GodsSomehow, over the last millennium-plus, the life story of Wu Daozi (689-759), possibly China’s greatest painter, went mostly missing. Chinese American author Lenore Look (best known for her entertaining double series about growing up bicultural, Alvin Ho and Ruby Lu), together with British Asian illustrator Meilo So, whimsically reimagine the artist in this splendid new title that echoes Wu’s greatest accomplishment: “He introduced the concept of depicting movement in figures and their clothing,” Look explains in her “Author’s Note.” So’s flowing watercolored lines make sure that “[h]is figures’ scarves billowed, their robes swum, and their hair blew in the wind.”

What begins as calligraphy lessons quickly becomes much more for the precocious young boy: “Each day something new and surprising dripped out of Daozi’s brush.” His drawings move from paper to “walls everywhere,” amazing all passers-by. Admirers willingly pay him, feed him … gifts he shares excitedly with the poor.

As the years pass, his paintings become so powerful as to fly, flutter, gallop off his brush. The monks accuse him of boasting and his admirers vanish. Yet the children continue to marvel and believe until the crowds once again multiply to such numbers that even the emperor requests “a grand masterpiece” on an entire palace wall, giving Wu “the greatest honor [he] could imagine.”

“Legend has it that Wu Daozi never died – he merely walked into his final painting … and disappeared,” Look adds at title’s end. That work – along with some 300 frescoes – didn’t survive. Piecing together references to Wu from poems and essays written by his contemporaries, Look and So create their own legend here … providing lavish inspiration for a new generation of artists to imagine and dream.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Biography, .Fiction, British Asian, Chinese, Chinese American

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Rebecca Guay

Bad GirlsIf beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then perhaps bad behavior might be, too. “In this book we are taking a look back through history at all manner of famous female felons,” write mother/daughter author-team Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple (who, between them, have hundreds and hundreds of titles). From as far back as 110 BCE to the 20th century, Bad Girls includes 26 women who have quite the historical rap sheet. But were they all really that bad? “Every crime – no matter how heinous – comes with its own set of circumstances, aggravating and mitigating, which can tip the scales of guilt. And views change.”

Salome, she of the dance of the seven veils who was rewarded with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, might have been just 10 or 11 (!!) and easily manipulated by the adults around her. Bloody Mary was a highly educated, sought-after Princess who was declared suddenly illegitimate, then banished at the whim of her own philandering father King Henry VIII. The slave Tituba, who only did her young charges’ bidding, could only escape hanging if she confessed to being a witch. Madame Alexe Popova helped desperate wives off their cruel husbands – over 300 of those bad boys. Typhoid Mary was never ill herself, but she was a typhoid carrier who wouldn’t let the doctors fix her infection-ridden gallbladder, even for free … if you were healthy, would you submit to the knife?

Decades, centuries, millenia later, how might these women be judged now? “As our world changes, so does our definition of bad,” Yolen and Stemple remind us. “[Y]ou will have to decide for yourself if they were really bad, not so bad, or somewhere in the middle. And perhaps you will see that even the baddest of bad girls may have had a good reason for what she did.”

Admittedly a page-turner – like a mangled train wreck, you can’t look away, except to flip the page – Bad Girls is a unique hybrid of short biographies with a graphic twist: each chapter ends with a graphic novel/manga-style conversation (hurray for Rebecca Guay‘s multi-varied ease in changing styles) between mother and daughter, debating the good, bad, and the often ugly circumstances. Their exchanges are cutesy, off-the-cuff, albeit with a few too many predictable quips – “The Tudors were a nasty bunch. Always sneaking and scheming” gets the expected reply, “Rather like modern politicians.” Yolen seems to be the older, wiser voice while Stemple is quick with her 21st-century judgments of “icky” and apparently more concerned about her wardrobe (her shoe-obsession – misplaced attempt at humor? – seems totally out-of-place). That said, let the bad girls speak for themselves. Read at your own risk … then be sure to decide for yourself.

Tidbit: Younger readers might better enjoy The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames, a thus-far seven-title collection featuring women who lived by their own rules (the series and Bad Girls have Cleopatra and (Bloody) Mary Tudor in common). Older readers should definitely check out this TEDxVancouver talk, “The Sociology of Gossip,” about what gossip – especially about supposedly badly-behaved women – says about our so-called modern society. It’s an eye-, ear-, and brain-opener!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng, woodcuts by the author

Etched in Clay Absolute details surrounding the life of Dave the Potter are limited and uncertain. What remains of his life story almost two centuries later, is scattered with uncertain words, including ‘sometime,’ ‘about,’ ‘believed to be,’ ‘might,’ ‘possibly,’ and other such noncommittal qualifiers. The few surviving documents prove an enslaved teenager was bought by the Drake family, co-owners of Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory in Edgefield, South Carolina, in whose service he became a talented potter whose creations have survived, in small numbers, and become museum-worthy art pieces.

As if paralleling the sparse details of Dave’s life, Andrea Cheng replicates that sparseness in her slim novel-in-verse; she echoes the poetic etchings Dave added to his pottery by enhancing her verse with etched woodblock prints of her own. The result is a gorgeous, contemplative, artistic memorial to a creative life that survived unspeakable hardship while creating lasting, even subversive, beauty.

Dave’s considerable skill – recognized and lauded … and exploited – cannot save him from the horrors of slavery. His first wife was sold, and later his second wife and her two sons taken from him, as well. He himself is bought and sold within the Drake and related Landrum families. And yet, although literacy is illegal among slaves, Dave is taught to read and write, which enables to etch his name (his objections, his miseries, his screams) into the wet clay and the guarded words he can never say out loud: “horses mules and hogs – / all our cows is in the bogs – / where they will ever stay – / till the buzzards take them away =.”

As much as I’ve appreciated, learned from, and enjoyed Cheng‘s titles over the years (I think I’ve read all but four of her almost two dozen books), this, her latest, is clearly, undoubtedly, most definitely my favorite thus far. Here’s the irony: the subject of Etched in Clay just might be the furthest from her personal experience. Cheng has written numerous books inspired by her Hungarian heritage (Marika, The Lace Dowry, The Bear Makers), although she’s better known for her titles highlighting the Chinese American experience (she’s been part of a hapa Chinese American family since college) including The Key Collection, Shanghai Messenger, Only One Year, and The Year of the Book; Clay is definitely her first, and thus far her only, book with the history of American slavery at its core. So much for ‘write what you know.’ Every so often, talent just trumps all.

Tidbit: In the ending “Author’s Note,” Cheng credits Leonard Todd and his book for adults, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave, for sparking her initial interest in Dave’s story, and later for “helping me so much with this project.” For interested readers, Todd’s website is a treasure trove of further information. The Smithsonian, by the way, owns two of Dave’s pieces (!); click here to see one of his poem jars collected by the National Museum of American History.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, African American, Chinese American