It’s About: Poems tell the story of Yeung Ying growing up in Hong Kong, from age five to twelve.
The Good: The poetry is simple but not simplistic; a tremendous amount is conveyed in a handful of words.
Yeung Ying first learns the power of story, of words, in several ways: as a small child, memorizing poetry brings the reward of dan lai, a special custard. She writes letters for her grandmother, is read stories by her teachers, and an older cousin says she could be a writer when she grows up. In short but powerful poems, one year a teacher makes her believe her dream is possible by saying “great work” and displaying her poetry while another teacher crushes her by calling a story the “worst story in the class.” Luckily, another year brings a teacher who praises her work and restores her confidence leading to Yeung Ying submitting a story to a paper. It is accepted: she is on her way.
Tofu Quilt is not just the story of a girl becoming a writer; it is also about a girl getting an education. Set in the 1960s, Yeung Ying’s family is repeatedly told by family and friends that educating a girl is a waste of money. The money could be spent elsewhere, Yeung Ying could be working to bring in money. Yeung Ying’s mother stands up repeatedly for her daughter, providing the schooling that makes it possible for Yeung Ying’s dreams to come true. While sexism is the primary reason for relatives counseling against the wisdom of educating a girl, another reason is that Yeung Ying’s family doesn’t have much money. Her father is a tailor and some times, work is good, like when American soldiers come over from Vietnam. Other times, not so much. Russel relates the family closing the door to avoid gossips seeing what they are and aren’t eating, and the “tofu quilt” her father makes from leftover fabric scraps.
At the same time, Russel is portraying the worlds of Hong Kong and China. Yeung Ying writes letters for family members, because they cannot get visas to travel to see each other. Other details of life and politics are provided, creating a vibrant look at Yeung Ying’s world.
What age? I would recommend this to readers from third grade to sixth. The language, and Yeung Ying’s age, makes this appealing to the younger age group, while the topics (education, sexism, writing, career) have an appeal to the older readers.