Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
A major writer of children’s literature, Laurence Michael Yep was born and grew up in San Francisco, living on the upper floor of his Chinese American parents’ grocery store. His uneventful childhood, recounted in The Lost Garden, later provided material for novels such as Child of the Owl and Sea Glass. Two turning points in his adolescence were his discovery of science fiction and having a high school English teacher who inspired him to become a writer. While studying journalism at Marquette University, he published a science-fiction story, “The Selchey Kids” (1968), anthologized in Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction: 1969 (1969). Its protagonist—a survivor of the flooding of California who discovers that he was created by an experimental combination of human and dolphin genes—imaginatively foreshadows the focus of several later novels involving young Chinese Americans troubled because they are not fully Chinese, not fully American, but a combination of the two.
Yep continued his education, earning a B.A. from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1970 and a Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1975. Encouraged by his future wife and then-editor Joanne Ryder, he wrote a children’s science-fiction novel, Sweetwater, in 1973. Though he later wrote three more science-fiction novels for adults—Seademons, a Star Trek novel (Shadow Lord, 1985), and Monster Makers, Inc.—the direction of Yep’s career was set by his second, more successful, children’s novel, Dragonwings. In the early 1900’s, a Chinese boy goes to San Francisco to live with his father, who works at a laundry but believes the message of a dream that he is really a dragon in human form. Possessing a natural aptitude for mechanical work, he abandons his career in order to build an airplane that he eventually completes and flies. Dragonwings, which won a Newbery Honor Book Award, may be Yep’s most striking achievement, effectively mingling Chinese folklore with a captivating portrait of an energetic visionary. After briefly teaching at two colleges, Yep became a full-time writer and soon published two more children’s novels, Child of the Owl and Sea Glass, involving modern Chinese American teenagers who learn about their heritage from elderly relatives; the latter won the 1979 Commonwealth Club Award.
In the 1980’s, Yep moved beyond individual novels to launch three multivolume series, the least noteworthy being two mystery stories featuring Mark Twain, The Mark Twain Murders (1982) and The Tom Sawyer Fires (1984). More impressive is the Shimmer and Thorn fantasy series (Dragon of the Lost Sea, Dragon Cauldron, Dragon Steel, and Dragon War) about an irascible dragon, Shimmer, who teams up with a brash boy named Thorn to defeat the enemies of her dragon kingdom and restore the stolen sea that was once their home. A third series, The Serpent’s Children, describes the experiences of nineteenth century Chinese immigrants. The first novel, Serpent’s Children, takes place in China and is related by Cassia Young, the spirited daughter of a rebel whose brother, Foxfire, moves to America to restore the family fortunes. The second, Mountain Light, is the story of Squeaky, a young man from a neighboring village who meets and falls in love with Cassia during a rebellion and later follows Foxfire to America, where his friend Tiny is killed. The third, Dragon’s Gate, also a Newbery Honor Book Award winner, is narrated by Tiny’s son Otter, who accidentally kills an official and flees to America, where he joins Foxfire and Squeaky in the dangerous work of building a transcontinental railroad through snowy mountains. While Yep’s earlier novels displayed a certain gentleness, these are distinguished by a stark, brutal realism. Dragonwings and Child of the Owl are loosely connected to this series.
As he approached his fortieth birthday, Yep began moving in several new directions. He returned to teaching, in 1987-1988 at the University of California at Berkeley and in 1990 as a writer-in-residence at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He published a play, Dragonwings, based on his novel; three collections of Chinese folktales, of which Tongues of Jade is the most effective; several picture books for younger children based on Chinese folktales, such as the evocative The Butterfly Boy; an autobiography; and the nonfictional When the Bomb Dropped: The Story of Hiroshima, which later inspired a novella for children, Hiroshima. He also edited a literary anthology, American Dragons: Twenty-five Asian American Voices. In addition to these efforts to demonstrate his versatility, Yep continued to produce realistic children’s novels about Chinese American immigrants, such as The Star Fisher, which have consistently been his best-received works.
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