of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star - Lenore Look
In her five books to date, Lenore Look has been consistent in her creation of joyful and engaging stories, whether in picture books or early reading chapter books, and in drawing on elements of both Chinese and Chinese American cultures. While topics range from swimming lessons to factory work to a wedding, each book emphasizes its main character's attempt to achieve a healthy balance between independence and connection to family, often through traditions such as the celebration of first-moon birthdays and adherence to the elaborate Chinese wedding ceremony rules. The cross-generational bonds of close extended families function as the norm rather than exceptional circumstance, with the books celebrating the closeness of family.
In the chapter books Ruby Lu, Brave and True, an ALA Notable Children's Book, and its sequel, Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything, Look has created an enduring and appealing heroine, with boldness and creativity enough to appeal to readers from any background and with cultural resonance that will entice outsiders and welcome insiders. Ruby's life brings a bicultural flair to the early reading format through the seamless incorporation of such details as lessons and activities in Chinese school, the differences between American and Chinese sign language that are raised as Ruby gets to know her deaf cousin who is a recent immigrant, and the infusion of Cantonese words in the text into her daily life. The humor and quick pace of these novels will get readers engaged, but they'll also appreciate the centrality of family in these books. A sense of loyalty to extended family even leads to the Lu household's opening up their small home to their recently immigrated relatives. Though Ruby is initially ambivalent about to sharing her precious room, she immediately finds a kindred spirit in her cousin Flying Duck (who shares Ruby's love of reflective tape), and when her relatives eventually find a place of their own, she is sorry to see them go.
Things aren't always rosy in Look's books, even in these stories of cozy homes and generally contented lives; there's enough distress to create conflict, ensuring that these aren't merely bland idyllic scenarios of familial closeness. This balance provides the major theme of Look's picture books. Jen, the protagonist of Henry's First-Moon Birthday, is almost inconsolable after a mischievous activity puts the festivities at risk. Her grandmother is not only able to calm her worries but also empowers Jen to repair the mistake herself, while preparations advance around her. In Jen's return engagement, Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding, she is quite slow in adjusting to the new woman in her Uncle Peter's life ("I'm his special girl. Just me. I am the jelly on his toast. And the leaves in his tea. Now, I am an umbrella turned inside out") and moves beyond her private sulking to actually attempting to ruin the festivities for everyone. Fortunately, her family forgivingly overlooks her small tantrums and lets her work through the feelings that led to the larger sabotage. Katie, in Love as Strong as Ginger, is sobered by her difficult day of visiting the crab factory where her grandmother works. However, the worlds of the child characters are generally positive spaces, and things have a way of working out in the end, even while retaining a realistic and poignant sense of struggle for the adults. One would wish nothing less than comfort, balance, and optimism for Jen and Katie, and Look delivers admirably by allowing the girls to draw strength and wisdom from the elders in their lives.
In writing about her own life, Look has described her experience of traveling with her father back to his childhood home in China, telling of both her trepidation and the comfort she took in having her father with her in that unfamiliar setting. It's clear that her books reflect her own understanding, and yet with their focus on home, family, and culture they manage to be universal as well as personal. Add in lively heroines, quiet wit, and sympathetic viewpoint, and you've got the work of a true Rising Star.
—April Spisak, Reviewer
Love as Strong as Ginger. Atheneum, 1999.
Henry's First-Moon Birthday. Atheneum, 2001. (BCCB 03/01)
Ruby Lu, Brave and True. Atheneum, 2004. (BCCB 04/04)
Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything. Atheneum, 2006. (BCCB 05/06)
Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding. Atheneum, 2006. (BCCB 01/06)