Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America by Helen Foster James and Virginia Shin-Mui Loh; illustrated by Wilson Ong (Review)


I’ve been trying hard to get my kids interested in Chinese immigration stories, so I was happy to have found this book. It’s a book about a fictional 12-year-old boy named Lee who immigrates from China to Angel Island in order to seek economic opportunity for his family. Lee is a paper son. His grandparents pay a paper father to falsify documents for his entry to the U.S., and the story is about how he misses his grandparents but has to study hard to pass the immigration test. The story is fictional, but the authors clearly did a lot of research on the living conditions of Chinese immigrants to Angel Island. The artwork by Wilson Ong is absolutely amazing.

This book brought a lot of dialogue and questions for my 7-year-old and 4-year-old, questions such as “Why does he have to memorize all these crazy facts?” (Answer: Racist immigration laws) and “Are they lying when they take the test?” (Answer: Yes.) The most important question is, of course, “Why didn’t he just stay in China?” (Answer: Better economic opportunities.)

The one serious issue I had was that perhaps they could’ve toned down at least one part of the story, namely the part where Lee is raised by his grandparents because his parents were “killed by bandits.” It’s written at a second grade level, but that’s not exactly something that a second grader should be thinking about. It gave my kids nightmares. It also led to all kinds of disturbing questions from the 4-year-old:

Daughter: Why were his parents killed by bandits?
BWW: I don’t know.
D: Is it because they wanted money?
BWW: Maybe.
D: And the parents didn’t give them money?
BWW: Maybe not.
D: Did they use a gun or a knife?
BWW: Umm. Well, probably a knife since guns are illegal in China.
D: Did they die right away?
BWW: I think so.
D: Why didn’t they give them money?
BWW: Maybe they didn’t have any. Which is why Lee had to go to America.

It was a bit of a diversion from the original intent, which was to teach Chinese American history, not to teach a lesson in violence and socio-economic inequality. It’s too bad the authors didn’t think about this.

Anyway, this is a good book to teach your kids history, but if you do get it, cover the part about the murdered parents and maybe say that they went on a long vacation. It will make the history lesson easier to teach.

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