Written and illustrated by Shing Yin Khor
(Kokila; $22.99, Ages 10-14)
Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
★ Starred reviews – Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal
A re-imagined Paul Bunyan legend gives one Chinese American girl
the courage to face adversity.
Thirteen-year-old Mei lives and works in an 1885 Sierra Nevada lumber logging camp in the graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. Her father, Hao, cooks for the workers, and Mei is famed for her pies. Mei, unlike the other women in the camp, does not wear a dress and is conflicted about her budding sexuality and her feelings towards Bee Anderson, the camp foreman’s daughter.
Within the camp, racial tensions simmer and the Chinese workers face discrimination and violence. Abusive behavior towards women in the camp also adds to an increasingly hostile environment. Camp foreman Hel Anderson, Bee’s father, turns a blind eye to all that is happening.
To help her and the other women and children cope with these injustices, Mei invents a Bunyanesque character, Auntie Po, only she can see. The stories she spins about Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, give courage and hope to the others.
Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese workers are forced to leave the mill. Mei stays with Bee’s family, but Hao and the other Chinese workers leave to find work in San Francisco. When camp conditions severely deteriorate, Anderson travels to Chinatown to persuade his former workers to return. Hao, mindful of Anderson’s acceptance of the discriminatory conditions, negotiates a better deal for the Chinese workers. Anderson agrees and Hao and the others return to the camp. Father and daughter are reunited.
Author/illustrator Khor’s colorful illustrations authentically capture 19th lumberjacking life, demonstrating the amount of research she did to convey the details of daily life and conditions experienced by the workers and their families. In addition, this graphic novel highlights the art of storytelling and how each story can be shaped or reimagined by the experiences of the teller and the listener.
As the story concludes, Mei and her father decide it’s time for her to go away to school. Mei has also resolved some of her identity issues:
“I know who I am. I am a good cook. I have good friends, I have the best pa in the world” (p. 272).
The author’s endnote and her bibliography contain valuable information, as does her video on how this book came about for anyone who wants to learn more about the legends and history behind this engaging graphic novel. This is truly the middle-grade at its finest.
- Reviewed by Dornel Cerro