Category Archives: Taiwanese American

Author Interview: Julie Wu

Third SonAt 22, Julie Wu had a “vision” about a sad young boy that she immediately rushed to capture in words. From those initial notes, she would take almost a quarter century to bring him to the page: at age 46, she “bloomed” as a first-time novelist. The Third Son, about a Taiwanese boy and his journey from being the abused son in a privileged family to his reinvention as a successful American immigrant, finally hit shelves in April this year.

I just discovered this humorous post you did for Beyond the Margins: “What It Means When Your Reviewer is Mean, Unfair, and Totally Doesn’t Get It,” in which you “fess up” about your own state of mind when you wrote a negative review of a medical article years ago. So have you encountered any bad reviews of The Third Son? If so, how did you react?
Oh, of course. I know that reading taste is so individualized. I’ve been lucky that the majority of the reviews have been so positive, but when I get a bad one I read it and see if it makes sense to me. If I find a common thread in bad reviews, I should take note. If I find [it] totally different from what others say, I chalk it up to taste.

And what might you say to such a reviewer if you ever met him or her?
I guess I would say I’m sorry you didn’t like my book. Hope you like my next one!

I take it you’re not the confrontational type … no spats at the next AWP, huh?
No – you can’t browbeat someone into liking your book.

So at 46, let’s say you’re almost half-way to the other side, so to speak … our generation might easily live to be 100 apparently. And, even better, you’re a doctor, so you can heal yourself. You’ve had many incarnations during your first half – violinist, opera singer, doctor, mother. The “mother”-title you’ll keep forever, of course. So what about “writer”? Think this one will stick for a while?
I view the “writer” role as my ultimate one. It encompasses the whole of my life’s experience. Everything I have goes into a piece of writing.

Having fulfilled the stereotypical Asian immigrant parents’ dream of becoming a doctor, how did they react when you decided to give up your practice and devote yourself full time to writing? Do you think you’ll ever go back to doctor-ing?
Well, I kind of took the backdoor route to a full time writing career. I had kids first, so the reason I gave for quitting my medical job was to take care of them. And once I was home, well …

… and an immigrant grandparent wants ONLY the best for their precious grandchildren!
Exactly! And it’s possible I’ll go back in some capacity. We’ll see.

Let’s talk Third Son – which was almost a quarter-century in the making. Through the many, MANY drafts and revisions, you kept some two percent of the original draft – I read a quote that said the final was 98% different from the first draft. What was that writing process like?
It was a tremendous learning experience. It took all that time for me to mature as a person and a writer, for Taiwan to develop free speech, and for Al Gore to invent the Internet as it now stands.

The Taipei Times reported in an article last fall that yours is the first novel in English that talks about the 228 Incident and the subsequent White Terror. So your debut title has made literary history! How have your readers, especially Chinese Americans, responded to the history lesson you’ve woven into your epic story? [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Julie Wu,” Bloom, October 30, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Third Son by Julie Wu + Author Profile

Third SonVision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son

So how many detours can a writer make before becoming that writer?

If you’re newbie novelist Julie Wu – who knew as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1980s that writing was what she wanted to do – the answer might include a Master’s program in opera performance (after serious training in the violin), medical school and the related internships and residencies required to become a doctor, a successful Boston-area practice, and motherhood.

Two decades-plus ago (but who’s counting?), Wu was “too intimidated to try writing,” as she revealed in an April interview for The award-winning novelist-to-be Allegra Goodman lived in Wu’s dorm, having already published, while other fellow Harvardites were also writing novels. Despite the encouragement of a teacher who admired Wu’s first freshman expository writing assignment so much that she suggested Wu move into a creative writing section, Wu decided instead to be “practical.” She thought about taking a short story class but didn’t have anything to submit for the application. She kept reading – “I simply love novels – the immersive nature of them. They’re really the original virtual reality programs, made to run on your brain” – and graduated with a degree in literature. Her own writing was yet to come.

Then at 22, Wu had a vision about “a little boy in Taiwan – it was so vivid I rushed immediately to write it all down, and that’s when I realized that that was how to write – that it wasn’t just pushing words around, it was about having a vision and really communicating that vision to other people.” She planned on a novel – “I wanted to be, you know, Tolstoy” – but another almost-quarter century would pass before Wu’s debut novel, The Third Son, finally hit shelves in April earlier this year just after she turned 46.

Wu began writing in earnest in 2001, producing Tolstoy-worthy lengths before eventually distilling her original vivid vision down to just over 300 pages: “I lost track of the number of revisions. I didn’t even print them all out, but I have drawers, trunks, and filing cabinets filled with drafts. Someday I’ll have a big bonfire,” she told Jaime Boler of Bookmagnet. She estimates she kept a mere 2% of the original draft.

The one element that remained unwavering throughout was, of course that “little boy in Taiwan.” He became Wu’s eponymous “third son,” Saburo Tong, who is more comfortable with his Japanese first name than his unfamiliar Taiwanese moniker Tong Chia-lin. Born into a politically prominent family in Japanese-controlled Taiwan, Saburo comes of age in the 1940s and ’50s, a tumultuous time on his small island home as it moves from Japanese control to U.S. invasion to mainland Chinese domination. Inextricably woven with Saburo’s narrative is the violent history of Taiwan’s 228 Incident, which began with the Taiwanese uprising against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on February 27, 1947, resulted in the brutal massacre of 10-30,000 Taiwanese on February 28 (“228”), and ushered in the White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted nearly four decades during which thousands of citizens were harassed, imprisoned, and murdered. [... click her for more]

Author profile: “Vision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son,” Bloom, October 28, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Author Interview: Pauline A. Chen

Red ChamberA couple of days after filing my feature on Pauline A. Chen, I got on the phone to ask her all the questions I couldn’t find answers to out there in the virtual world of google-ing.

True confession moment: I admit I was a wee bit intimidated as the land lines connected us between DC and Cleveland – just what sort of person takes on the most canonical text in Chinese literary history (The Dream of the Red Chamber) and makes it her own (The Red Chamber)? I actually expected a Glenn Close/Cruella de Vil sort of megalomaniacal voice to pick up. Lucky for me, I could put that overactive imagination away, because really, as gutsy as her literary move has been, she’s not at all the hardened character I had dreamt up. Always good to start an interview with a sigh of relief.

Let’s begin with the basics: I understand you spoke rudimentary Chinese as a child because your parents didn’t want their native language to impede their children’s English proficiency. So when and how did you learn Chinese? Which dialect? And are you fluent now?
I took beginning Mandarin in college [Harvard], but the Chinese language program was just getting started at the time, so the classes were not terribly challenging. After I graduated, I spent a year in Taiwan teaching English and that’s when my proficiency really improved, just because I was living in a Chinese-speaking environment. One of my English students in Taiwan introduced me to 9th-century Tang poetry, which I fell in love with – until then I had never imagined that such a developed and sophisticated literary tradition even existed in China.

I came back to the U.S. and went straight to law school, but on the side, I took classes in classical Chinese language and literature. By the time I finished law school, I had realized working over the summers at law firms that I did not want to be an attorney. I went straight into a PhD program in East Asian Studies, and that’s when I began to study Chinese literature in earnest.

I’m pretty fluent in Mandarin, but my training in graduate school focused on reading pre-modern texts – mostly poetry from the fourth century to the ninth century – so I would say I’m stronger in classical Chinese. I can understand quite a bit of Taiwanese, but my attempts to speak it are usually treated with frank derision by native speakers.

You were so certain going into college that you wanted to be a writer. Where did that determination come from?
For as long as I can remember, I liked to write; I had an impulse to make up stories. And reading always gave me such tremendous pleasure. But really, I had no idea what it meant to be writer. Growing up, I never revised anything I wrote, or asked another person for feedback. I just had this dream as a child, but had no comprehension that this was something I had to work towards.

And then during your four years at college, your writerly ambitions just disappeared. How? Why?
The first reason was that at Harvard, students have to apply to get into creative writing courses, and I got into poetry, not fiction. I struggled in the poetry because then, as now, I was fascinated by poetry in other languages – I studied Latin poetry back then – but really didn’t know the English poetic tradition very well. The deeper reason was that I just didn’t know how or what to write. As a teenager I had loved Jane Austen, but at college I started to realize that emulating her style and subject matter would have been faintly ridiculous, and that I needed to find a way to incorporate my own perspective and experience into what I wrote. Years later, when I read V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, I understood that this was what he had experienced when he tried to write like a worldly, Evelyn Waugh-like sophisticate, while trying to suppress his own experience in a peasant family on colonial Trinidad. I also was too undeveloped, too uncomfortable with my own background to use it as a platform from which to write.[... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Pauline A. Chen,” Bloom, February 20, 2013

Readers: Middle Grade, Adult

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The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen + Author Profile

Red ChamberWhen the teenaged Pauline Chen arrived in Harvard Yard, her intention was to become a writer. The American-born daughter of Taiwanese parents, she grew up amidst Long Island’s endless strip malls and was determined – she wrote in July 2012 at Tribute Books – to shed her “provincial” upbringing. By the time Chen graduated in 1986, she had reinvented herself as an “international sophisticate” whose literary preferences had “distinctly European sensibilities: cigarettes and grappa at Parisian cafés; country dances and muslin frocks in a Derbyshire ballroom.” Her undergraduate degree was earned in Classics, and belied a particular interest in Latin poetry.

During her four years in Cambridge, she shed her “frizzy perm and Long Guyland accent,” but gone, too, by the time she graduated, were her authorly ambitions: “… I stopped feeling that I had anything to say. My writing dried up; I did not understand that the experiences which made me nervous and uncomfortable, which I was quick to bury, also made me creative.”

Although she didn’t create, she also didn’t stray too far from the page. After Harvard, she went to Yale Law School and got her JD. She went south to Princeton where she finished a PhD in East Asian Studies with an emphasis on reading pre-modern Chinese poetry from the fourth to ninth century in original classical Chinese. She had stopovers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where she honed the rudimentary Mandarin of her childhood into fluency, before settling in “most alien of all” – Ohio – to become a professor of Chinese language and literature, squarely on the tenure track. She got married. She had a child.

And then she got cancer.

Diagnosed with a rare, highly aggressive ovarian cancer in 2001 just weeks after giving birth to her son, Chen returned to some of the comforts of her childhood when her mother moved from New York to Ohio, to take over Chen’s family’s care. Chen’s mother… mothered: she cooked, cleaned, and cooed over her newborn grandson. When the chemo erased Chen’s appetite, her mother’s rice was sometimes her only nourishment. When her baby cried, only his grandmother could comfort him. When Chen required more advanced treatment in another state, Chen’s mother took full charge, following her daughter with her grandson, setting up a new apartment, and smoothly continuing her patient care.

Chen’s mother’s “generosity and talents … enabled [her] to survive,” Chen wrote at Goodreads in September 2012. Before her cancer, Chen’s focus was honed on her demanding academic career and the financial independence it offered, which she thought set her far apart from her traditional mother who had arrived in the U.S. to pursue a PhD in Pharmacology but chose to stay home after her eldest was born with a congenital defect (from which she eventually recovered). Not until her youngest of three children entered school did she get her pharmacist’s license, with which she worked in hospitals for the next 30 years. Growing up, Chen internalized the contempt with which her engineering professor father treated her mother: “I had always failed to give her credit for her talents, for the very reason that she had chosen to devote them to the service of those she loved, rather than to the professional realm.” Only as an adult – and a cancer patient relying on her mother’s unconditional support – did she recognize the “idyllic period of our childhood”: “For years I deplored my childhood circumstances as narrow. In fact my parents had lived on two continents and spoke three languages. All along the narrowness had been in my own vision—and I had had to travel to the ends of the earth in order to see the place that I had come from.” [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Pauline A. Chen and The Red Chamber: ” … to finish the story for myself,” Bloom, February 18, 2013

Tidbit: Click here for my review of The Red Chamber, originally published in Library Journal. Click here for my review of Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas in BookDragon. And click here for a follow-up Q&A with Chen.

Readers: Adult


Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Taiwanese American

Sorry Please Thank You Stories by Charles Yu

Charles Yu’s stories are indescribable. Really. Every time I picked up this recent collection, my face broke out in a goofy, uncertain grin, because I was totally unsure of what I might encounter next.

Here’s what I can tell you …

Thirteen stories are divided into four categories: Sorry, Please, Thank You, All of the Above. The utter commonplace nature of those words are in sharp contrast to the surreal tales contained within. In “Standard Loneliness Package” – my personal favorite – a young man works in a whole new sort of call center in Bangalore, India, where any and all unwanted emotions can be outsourced: “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.” In “First Person Shooter,” a lovelorn young man working “the graveyard shift at WorldMart” helps a zombie “pull together a decent-looking outfit.” In “Hero Absorbs Major Damage,” a chicken-craving warrior and his quickly debilitating army just might be at the mercy of a 9-year-old god “whose mom keeps yelling at him to clean up his room.” In “Yeoman” (which surely is doing the wink, wink nod at Star Trek‘s randy Captain Kirk), a man with an eight-months-pregnant wife faces death at the end of the week – because that’s just part of his job. In “Adult Contemporary,” a would-be homebuyer tries to escape the controlling narrator in his own head.

You could definitely just read each of the 13 stories as pieces of quirky entertainment and be contentedly done. But by book’s end, you’d be hard-pressed not to be disturbed by a heavy sense of disconnect. Outsourced feelings, a device to store your wishes and desires, a guide to “extended family relationships,” the self separated from an “alternate self,” the latest “God pill” … as sci-fi as some of that initially sounds, Yu’s imagined worlds are sharply unsettling commentary on our lives now, with too many of our children wandering cyberspace, our thousands of virtual ‘friends,’ our genetically-modified foods, our designer drugs, and on and on.

While his work defies labels and categorization, Yu himself has been part of the literary elite since 2007 when he was named one of the “5 Under 35” by the National Book Foundation, presenters of the National Book Awards. With two collections and a novel already praised, prized, and awarded, imagine what Yu will do by the time he’s 55.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Taiwanese American

The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen

The 2,500-page, 18th-century classic, Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, is regarded as China’s most important work of fiction. Pauline A. Chen (Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, for middle-grade readers) tackles the daunting task of adapting the revered original text, and her literary bravado engenders a stunning success.

Chen chooses three women to tell the story of the prominent Jia family: controlling granddaughter-in-law Xifeng, dutiful cousin-by-marriage Baochai, and naive granddaughter Daiyu – the only Jia by blood – who enters the sprawling ancestral compound after a two-generation estrangement. Chen well realizes “[a] woman doesn’t have any choices in life” in 18th-century Beijing with her future determined by family to be a wife, concubine, or serving slave, and thus imbues these women with rich inner lives.

Verdict: Fans of historical fiction who appreciate resonant details, unexpected intrigue, and multigenerational plotting will find this work irresistible. With just the right blend of highbrow literary (Chen’s pedigree includes Harvard, Yale Law, and a Princeton PhD in Chinese literature) and guilty summer pulp, Chen just might put this 18th-century classic on 21st-century bestseller lists.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 15, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Taiwanese American

Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas by Pauline Chen

Don’t let the seasonal title fool you … this is one those sweet timeless stories about the adolescent need to belong. Peiling is American. Her parents, in spite of what their passports say, consider themselves Taiwanese. Like most 11-year-olds, Peiling wants to be just like everyone else. With the impending winter holidays, all the other kids are talking about Christmas. But that’s not a holiday that the Wang family ever celebrates.

This year, Peiling wants more than anything to experience the whole Christmas shebang. Somehow she manages to convince her reluctant parents to agree to the mistletoe, tree, stockings, and even hosting a traditional (American) holiday meal for the whole extended Wang clan … plus a surprise guest. But the celebration is not what Peiling expected: who marinates their turkey in ginger and soy sauce, puts longyan in their salads, sings karaoke instead of “Jingle Bells,” and plays mahjong on Christmas anyway?

Of course, Peiling will need a little help getting over her disappointments and frustrations. Good friends and caring teachers are always important, but so is one’s own sense of accomplishment, which Peiling gets to test in herself when she’s promoted from understudy to starring role in the upcoming school play.

In a little over a hundred pages, Chen manages to weave in multiple multicultural lessons, generational conflicts, issues with assimilation, challenging relationships in school, and even a budding romance. And while she might offend just a few conservative Christians over the complete secularization of a holy day, they can merely be reminded that such judgment might not be in the proper spirit.

Tidbit: I picked up Peiling last week because I was assigned Chen’s upcoming adult novel (sneak peek: WOW!) to review for one of my regular publications [I always try to read previous titles before writing reviews.]. For the adult market, Chen includes a middle initial – Pauline A. Chen – perhaps to distinguish herself from Pauline W. Chen who wrote the lauded Final ExamA Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality. Amazingly enough, both share Harvard and Yale credentials, as well as the Dr. title – PhD for A., medical for W. So many accomplished Pauline Chens out there indeed!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2007


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Taiwanese American

Dumpling Days by Grace Lin

Even though today’s calendar reminds you it’s Friday the 13th, no worries! Let me share with you the youthful wisdom of one Grace Pacy Lin: “There was no day dumplings couldn’t make better.” After a long-awaited four-year hiatus, Pacy’s back … with a peripatetic, toothsome adventure to share.

Pacy, the alter-ego of 2010 Newbery Honor author Grace Lin (for her splendiferous Where the Mountain Meets the Moon), stars in her third title, following The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat. This time, Pacy is Taiwan-bound for a month with her family to celebrate her grandmother’s upcoming 60th birthday.

Dressed identically with her two sisters in “hot-pink overall dresses” and grumpily stuck in the middle seat of a long flight, Pacy would much rather be heading to Hawai’i or California (where she could at least see her best friend Melody). Taiwan might be her parents’ “homeland,” but for Pacy and sisters, “our small town of New Hartford, New York – with its big trees and sprawling lawns, the one shopping mall, and the red brick school with the tall, waving American flag – was our homeland.” Yet as her father patiently explains, “‘This is an important trip … Traveling is always important – it opens your mind. You take something with you, you leave something behind, and you are forever changed. That is a good trip.’”

The food, with so many different kinds of dumplings, is one experience that makes Pacy’s trip deliciously “good” (never mind the chicken feet and stinky tofu). Even more important than filling her belly, though, is feeding her heart, talent, and soul as Pacy gets to know her extended family and experience her ancestral culture through art, travel, and even riding the city subway.

Lin gently explores the disconnect of a second-generation child making a first visit to a country both familiar and alien: Pacy’s feelings of not being American enough at home (“‘It’s hard to match you in a cute couple …You don’t fit anyone else,’” a school friend insists) and yet being rejected as an Americanized “Twinkie” by other Taiwanese Americans, then realizing that in spite of her heritage, she doesn’t quite fit in her parents’ homeland, either. By book’s end, Pacy’s empathetic understanding of her parents’ immigration to the U.S. is especially memorable.

In case you might think the story overly familiar, Lin manages to deftly add a 21st-century spin on the ‘stranger-in-a-strange-land’ tale, re-introducing Pacy’s favorite cousin Clifford (whose wedding figured prominently in The Year of the Rat) and his wife Lian, who are now living in Taiwan as a result of the growing opportunities of reverse immigration in today’s global economy. Lin keeps surprising you with SAT-prayers to the ancient God of Literature, a subway pickpocket, a garbage truck that sings the ice cream truck song, and so much more … of course!

Tidbit: Make sure to check out the adorable book trailer.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Taiwanese American

Operation Marriage by Cynthia Chin-Lee, illustrated by Lea Lyon

In case you needed another reminder, Banned Books Week continues for a couple more days … hope we’ve got lots of rebel readers out there! Since #1 on the “Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2010” is again And Tango Makes Three, I thought this newest title from author Cynthia Chin-Lee would make a lovely companion title to adorable Tango

Alex goes to school one day to have her friend Zach tell her they “‘can’t be best friends anymore.’” The reason he gives – directly from his father – is because of Alex’s parents. According to Zach’s father, Alex’s parents aren’t married: “‘My dad says two women can’t be married.’”

When Alex tells Mama Kathy what happened, she assures her young daughter that, of course, they’re married. When Mama Kathy and Mama Lee were denied a marriage license years and years ago, they instead held a commitment ceremony, complete with legal contracts that permanently bound their lives together. Temporarily reassured, that night Alex, her younger brother Nicky and both parents share warm laughter watching the video of Mama Kathy and Mama Lee’s commitment ceremony. And in the morning, Alex has a plan …

Now that the laws have changed and their two mothers can legally marry, Alex and Nicky devise Operation Marriage. But they need to move quickly before the laws change again; already, even some of their neighbors – including Zach’s father – are posting signs in their yard, ready to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

Just in time, Alex and Nicky get their mothers to the altar: “Most kids don’t get to see their parents marry. But we’re not most kids.” And Zach? Well … cookies speak louder than words!

For those who believe, true love does conquer all.

Tidbit: When I first opened Operation Marriage – all I knew about it was that I admired the author’s previous titles – Cynthia Chin-Lee’s dedication jumped out at me: “To the real Alex and Nikki, who inspired this, and to the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto.” I don’t see that spelling of “Nikki” often … and a little light started going full tilt in my head. Then I saw the names Kathy and Lee as I turned the pages, and had a near heart attack … of joy. Immediately, I sent a message of delighted shock and gleeful surprise …!!

So it turns out, I’m in the book (by association) – in that commitment ceremony video the family enjoys together. I was there in that lovely old stone church in Harvard Square those many, many years ago (we really were oh so young then!) celebrating the marriage of my favorite college running buddy Lee (how many endless times did we run Balch Hill and Occom Pond??) to the love of her life Kathy. I didn’t make it to ceremony #2 (alas, alas), but I am seeing Lee next month. Hopefully the rest of the crew soon, too!

Like I said, for those who believe, true love conquers all. Makes little miracles happen, too. For penguins and people, ahem!

Readers: Children

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific, Taiwanese American

Say What? by Angela DiTerlizzi, illustrated by Joey Chou

“How do we know / what animals say / when they say what they say / with their sounds every day?” How, indeed …?

So begins Angela DiTerlizzi’s adorably clever, humorous dictionary-of-sorts from animal-ese to kiddie-ese, delightfully animated with infectious energy by Joey Chou. “When a lion says ROAR, / does he really mean MORE?” With Papa Lion lugging the next load of playthings for his little cub shouting soapy demands from a tub surrounded by bubbles, the answer would be, ‘you betcha!

“When a sheep says BAA, / does he really mean MA?” With Mama Sheep making googly-eyes at her newborn lamb wrapped in a fluffy starburst blanket through the glass of the chic sheep maternity ward, you know it’s absolutely!

“When a cat says MEOW, / does she really mean NOW?” With time-pressed MommyCat trying to rouse her kitten from deep slumber as the clock quickly ticks away, you better believe it.

“They way what they say / in their own silly way, / when they say what they say / with their sounds every day.” As you share a new sort of language lesson with your littlest one, you’ll have ample opportunity to HISS/KISS … HOO/YOU … and be rewarded with a no-need-to-translate “I do love you so!” What a perfect way to start a cuddle-fest weekend. Happy Friday for sure!

Readers: Children

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific, Taiwanese American