Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Paper Son: Lee's Journey to America by Helen Foster James and Virginia Shin-Mui Loh, illustrated by Wilson Ong

It is 1926 and Fu Lee has just been told by his grandmother that he will be going to America in three weeks as a "paper son" to have a better life than the one he would have if he stayed in his small village in China with his grandparents.

To prepare Lee, his grandparents give him a coaching book which tells him everything he needs to know to convince the immigration authorities in San Francisco that he is really the son of Fu Ming, an American citizen.  The book includes such minute details as the number of windows and doors in Fu Ming's house and where they keep their rice bin.

Each night for three weeks, PoPo quizzes Lee to make sure he has learned the information in his coaching book.  Finally, Lee sails for America.  He continues studying his coaching book, but throwing it overboard just before disembarking.

In San Francisco, Lee and the other Chinese passengers are taken to the Angel Island Immigration Station, given physicals and, if their health is good, they are given a bunk bed in a dormitory until they are called for questioning.

And when he is called, Lee is subjected to hours and hours of interrogation more than once.

What is a paper son, you might be wondering.  Basically, it was a way for Chinese people to emigrate to the US at a time when our borders were closed to them due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  But after the earthquake of 1906, records were lost so no one really knew who was born in the US and who wasn't.  This enabled many Chinese immigrants to claim they were related to an American citizen of Chinese descent - for a price.  In Fu Lee's case, it cost $100.00 for each year of his life, in other words, $1200.00, not a small sum for poor farmers like Gong Gong and PoPo.  Of course, there is an explanation at the back of the book about this and about Angel Island, the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island.

Paper Son is one of those historical picture books for older readers that presents an aspect of history in fictional form.  I really like these kinds of books for classroom use, but I wonder if an 8 or 9 year old would read this on their own.

That said, this is really a very informative, well-researched book.  The text is complimented on every page by the soft, almost muted though expressive paintings of Wilson Ong, which convey what Lee must have been feeling from trading in his real identity for one that isn't real, to being alone in a strange country, never knowing who to trust.

I have only one criticism of Paper Son- the Chinese words aren't clearly defined.  I could figure out that Gong Gong means grandpa and PoPo means grandma (and that would be on the mother's side of the family) and that Gum Saan refers to the United States, but could a young reader?  I wonder.  Regardless, I definitely love this book and highly recommend it.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was obtained from the publisher.


  1. A wonderful review Alex. Living close to Angel island, this book has piqued my interest. It would be great to read this to DD before the next visit.
    Also, I had not known about the background of immigrants during the early 1900's. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, this is a really great book for studying about immigration. My daughter told me about paper sons when she was studying Chinese and this is the first kids book I found on the topic.

  2. This does sound like a fascinating book on a subject few know about. I do agree that the book would be useful in a classroom but probably more for children ages ten and up.

    1. Yes, it is fascinating. I suppose kids 10 and up could find it useful, but may be resistant to a picture book, thinking they are for babies.

  3. It looks great and fills in a missing piece of Asian American history that you can not find in children's books.

  4. Hello!
    Thank you so much for linking up on the Kid Lit Blog Hop!
    This looks like a fantastic book, and I hope to check it out soon.
    Happy Thursday!

  5. This sounds fascinating. I'm sure I will struggle with the Chinese words - but no matter, I have to read this! You write such compelling reviews, my must-read list just keeps growing.

  6. Thank you so much for your lovely review of “Paper Son: Lee's Journey to America.”

    Authors wait nervously to hear how folks feel about their books and I'm so thrilled you enjoyed the book and can see the book's place in classrooms and libraries.

    Thank you for your review.


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