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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO by Shing Yin Khor

Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Courtney Hague.

Let’s talk about the one graphic novel on our Heavy Medal Mock Newbery list this year.  THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO by Shing Yin Khor is a historical graphic novel with a bit of a reimagining of the Paul Bunyan tall tale thrown in. 

Our protagonist, Mei, has grown up in a logging camp in Nevada in the 1880s. Her father is a Chinese immigrant who cooks for the loggers.  While the camp’s foreman and his daughter are kind to Mei and her father, the world is not a fair place for them. Violence and racism against them is vividly depicted in this story.  Throughout the book, Mei weaves stories for the children at the camp about a giant Chinese woman, Auntie Po, and her blue ox, who are loggers and their adventures helping people and logging.  These stories depict Mei’s hope for the future and help her to work through her feelings about the things that are happening around her.  In one really moving moment after Mei’s father has been fired and she is helpless to bring him back to the camp, Mei weaves a story about Auntie Po standing up to a corrupt and racist camp owner.  Though the story helps her emotionally, it can’t bring her father back to the camp and she thinks:

“I’m angry that I have to make my own gods. I’m angry that even the gods I make can’t help my family.” (p. 125)

This book really shines in its delineation of themes and its character development.

Even with minimal text, we are still able to see all of the characters very clearly.  The conversation between the foreman, Mr. Andersen, and Mei’s father, Hao between pages 153 and 163 is a great example of this. Mr. Andersen has decided that he must convince Hao to come back to the camp as their head cook despite having fired him just for being Chinese.  You see Mr. Andersen’s humility and shame on the page as well as his respect for Hao, but  you also see Hao’s personality on the page as he negotiates to get what he and his community deserve.  

While Mei has been creating stories to help those around her process their world and bring hope to the marginalized people around her, she had thought that her story had already been written. But over the course of the novel, Mei discovers that the stories she has told aren’t perfect and maybe her story won’t be either, but she can, in fact, create her own story as well. The theme in this book of storytelling as a means to create the world around you is masterfully summed up at the end of the book in this quote: 

“Sometimes my stories are imperfect, but my stories are still real. I’m going to have my very own story now” (p. 282)

Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!

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About Emily Mroczek-Bayci

Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at emilyrmroczek@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Amanda Bishop says

    I am a huge fan of retellings and The Legend of Auntie Po did a great job. I love the way that Yin Khor managed to blend imaginative storytelling with the harsh reality for Chinese-Americans during this time. Mei is such a lovable character and she is so brave and manages to stand up to the injustices that surround her and her father.

    Analyzing graphic novels through their text can sometimes be difficult because it can be hard to separate the visual aspects of storytelling with the narrative. However, I think this book could have been told just as beautifully had it been written in prose. In this instance, the illustrations only add complexity and beauty to this story.

    I strongly agree with Courtney that this book excels in the delineation of theme as well as character development.

  2. I really enjoyed this graphic novel. As Mei and her best friend, Bee, are getting older, the harsh reality of their diverging futures is setting in. Though this is not an uncommon plot point, especially in historical fiction, it still feels fresh in The Legend of Auntie Po.This is possibly because the lives of Chinese-American lumberjacks in the 1880 are rarely explored, but also because the author adds a lot of details about their lives and experiences, in addition to the larger than life stories of Auntie Po. I actually really enjoyed the details of the lumber industry. They were integrated into the plot, provided context, and added rich detailing. Sometimes authors seem to get carried away including all of the details they learned during their research, but that wasn’t the case here.

  3. Aryssa Damron says

    What a lovely book! The illustrations and coloring were STUNNING–the kind of books you want to wallpaper your house in.

    I agree with Amanda–the illustrations help, but it’s still very poignant just words alone.

  4. Louie Lauer says

    There is a lot to like about this graphic novel, but one area I think is especially well done is the development of theme throughout the story. One of the major themes in this story is “taking back the narrative” or “telling your own story”. This is certainly seen through the retelling of Paul Bunyan as Auntie Po. Students familiar with Paul Bunyan will easily make many connections between famous oversized lumberjack and Auntie Po’s story. This theme is also mirrored in Mei’s story and the story of Chinese immigrants in the logging camp. At first we see Mei and her father accept their situations in the logging camp. With the help of a sympathetic camp boss and their own bravery and determination, both father and daughter take ownership over their own situation and stake claim to what should rightfully be theirs. They are taking ownership of their story. To see this theme worked through both of these narratives is really impressive and just shows how carefully thought out and executed this story is.

  5. Bernice Montague says

    Another success of this title was the way that the non-Chinese lumberjacks were portrayed with nuance. It was made clear that they, too, were recent residents of the area, and frontier life was no picnic for anyone.

  6. Andrea Tyler says

    This was one of my favorite books that I read this past year and I’m not a graphic novel reader. I really enjoyed the alternate take on the Paul Bunyan story to include the Chinese immigrants and their struggles during this time in history. I hope this book will inspire young readers to look more into the history of immigration during this time period. There is so much emphasis on immigration from Europe that it is often unknown to a lot of people that immigrants came from all over the world.

  7. Lisa Levin says

    This was a powerful graphic novel with historical content and folklore. I think it is a definite contender for an award. I really enjoyed learning about the Chinese lumberjacks and I agree with Andrea about the importance and emphasis on immigration, a very important topic. There is a fabulous YouTube video by Shing Yin Khor and how she created this graphic novel and how she did the research for some of it. Very fascinating.

    • Ooh! I’ll be sure to go watch that– thanks Lisa!
      And I adored the book as well. Very strong storytelling (!) well developed characters, great balance of humor and serious subjects and so much pie.

  8. I really enjoyed The Legend of Auntie Po. It was a different story, and it was great to read about a setting that is often written about for this age group. However, I do not think that the writing meets the level of the Newbery award. I don’t think the important scenes of the story would have the same impact without the illustrations. For example, the scene where Mei’s father and his boss talk about him going back to work, the illustrations tell more of the story. Or when the explosion happened, the illustrations are what show the terror and the grief. It would not be the same without the illustrations.
    I also think the treatment of the Chinese workers is a little too glossed over. Even though this is a children’s book, I think the author could have gone a little further with this aspect.

    • Yes, I agree that certain scenes need the (gorgeous!) illustrations to make their impact.
      I really hope an award for graphic novels is just around the corner. They should be celebrated for and evaluated on their own particular merits, not have to make their impact solely with writing, for that really isn’t the point of a graphic novel!

      • I would love a separate award for graphic novels! They are a different (but wonderful and important) format than a novel and those features should be acknowledged.

  9. Emily Smith says

    I just want to echo what others have said here. I so enjoyed reading about a group of immigrants that is so underrepresented in children’s literature (and, well, *all* American literature). If there’s one thing I wanted more of, it was the subtle queer love story–but I suppose that might make it veer more toward YA than middle grade.

  10. Megan Howes says

    This was absolutely gorgeous!! I loved all the nuances and the themes explored in this graphic novel, and I really do think it stands strong on text alone. I loved that Mei came to the conclusion that she has agency and purpose in her life, and I thought that the storytelling and making American folk tales her own was a beautiful way to explore how to make sense of the world. I would be so happy to see this get recognition!

  11. Tamara DePasquale says

    I share the call for an award for graphic novels, but until that happens we must pay special attention to worthy titles that may be overlooked. I’ll begin by agreeing with everyone regarding the need for more books like The Legend of Auntie Po.

    That said, I may be the sole dissenting voice here and a strong one at that. I think the book is more Caldecott worthy than Newbery worthy. As mentioned previously, there are several important events that occur that strengthen both characterization and setting, and without the illustrations, they fall flat or are completely lost. Auntie Po and Pei Pei are given physical attributes in the text, but their constant presence and importance to Mei is missing without the illustrations. The playful storyline that includes Pei Pei’s footprints is completely lost. The explosion and its impact to all the loggers is so much less dramatic and impactful for the characters and the reader without the illustrations. The dance scene between Mei and Bee…gone!

    I also do not feel that the narrative offers exceptional writing. It does not rise to the level of a Newbery text. It often feels choppy to me. Other than Mei’s storytelling, it’s mostly dialogue. In addition, some words spoken in Chinese are not given meaning or context without the illustrations. For example, what does Mei’s father mean when he says “Go and pai pai.”? Auntie Po is missing the language I long for and savor in a Newbery text.

    I truly drooled over the illustrations — the use of color, the movement, the work outside the panels, the details of the setting. I could go on and on about how much I appreciate this book, but it’s the whole product, text and picture, that give us full characters, a vivid setting and the strong themes.

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