The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1989. (See review.)
Short story/folklore collection, 194 pages.
Lexile: 680L .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 6.0 points) .
Twenty stories drawn from the most common area of Chinese-American immigration, streamlined and retold for younger audiences.
So I’m pretty sure my copy is a knock-off. The cover is the 1992 version, although on close examination it’s subtly off, but the interior copyright page is taken from one of the early 1989 printings. The margins aren’t set correctly and vary too much, and while harder to quantify, the paper and bindings don’t feel right compared to other books from this time period from this publisher that I’ve handled.
I purchased this book online, ostensibly new. After investigation, I don’t believe that the seller of this was aware then that it might be a printing violating copyright, so I won’t mention them specifically. Normally I would get a copy from the library to check if this version is accurate, but in Covid times, that is easier said than done. Perhaps some kind person who has access to a proper version of this book will comment if my citations are correct. I decided to still write this review because I’ve been wanting to talk about Laurence Yep and this book is particularly interesting.
Turning now to this specific volume, it’s a unique work. While I’ve seen many volumes of, or including, Chinese folklore, this book by Yep is the first I’ve seen that suggests a uniquely Chinese-American variety of tall tales. He points out that since the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America came from a specific province, the stories of that region have greater significance than more general Chinese or Asian proverbs.
Yep divides the stories into five different categories. In addition to an informative introduction and afterword, he also writes a note for each section that gives further room for thought about the individual stories contained there. I’ll give brief commentary on each story – here structured into paragraphs based on each section.
Yep begins with stories of Tricksters, explicitly noting that these southern Chinese trickster narratives defy the passive quiet stereotype. Bedtime Snacks is a gruesome story which had me worried this book might be horror, but Natural Enemies is a more typical adventure or explanation story about why dogs and cats hate each other. The Professor of Smells is one of the longer stories in this book, but also one of my favorites – where a gambler recognizes the true value of his wife, and must use his wits to provide for her after losing all of their money and goods.
Next come the stories of Fools. The Eel’s Disguise is the story of a very foolish man who sets out to get dinner for himself and his wife, and ends up bringing her exactly what she asked for, in an unexpected way! The Child of Calamity is a rather sad story of a conscientious woman for whom nothing could ever turn to her good fortune, even a miracle from heaven raining down upon her. Although this was a depressing tale, I could also see Yep’s point about how it relates to the early Chinese American experience given the legal racism, segregation, and family separation that characterized that time period and still has relevance today. The Ghost’s Bride is a spooky cautionary tale both about listening to the wisdom of elders and about the hidden danger inherent in everyday objects. While an entirely different and less creepy story, The Butterfly Man teaches along the same lines, but adds the wisdom of judiciously helping others and recognizing saints.
Virtues and Vices are the subject of the next section. We Are All One includes sections about kindness to living creatures that felt very familiar but with a unique Chinese-American take. The Superior Pet centers around a silver ear scoop and a white mouse and was for me one of the more surprising tales. Several lessons are learned in Snake-Spoke, including the importance of listening to elders, patience and curtesy, and standing by your beliefs rather than the latest trends. A woman is stubborn and contrary but is ultimately rewarded for her persistence in The Old Jar. The Boasting Contest ends this section with a gruesome tale of three brothers, two of whom are determined to ruin the hard work and patient efforts of the youngest.
The next section, In Chinese America, also begins with a story of brothers making different choices, but Trouble Snake follows a different pattern, much as life in America did. Breaker’s Bridge is an interesting tale of a clumsy young man who applies his clever mind to building extraordinary bridges – until the emperor sets him an impossible task. Virtue Goes to Town is a tall tale much like Paul Bunyan, but with a uniquely Chinese-American spin. The importance of remaining focused on wife and children even through long and far distant separations is the central problem of The Homecoming.
After stories that have frequently been grim, depressing, gruesome, or simply unhappy, the final portion of the book is titled Love. The story Dream-Flier did not appear in the original source material, but was inspired by worship of the goddess T’ien-Hou in Chinese-American temples of the time. The next tale is the only one of the original series to be set partially in America, Slippers. A wife’s devotion is central to The Changeling, which defies modern stereotypes about Asian women. Finally, in the eponymous story The Rainbow People a flute player visits the mountain where a powerful wizard lives and learns that “Sometimes you lose something in the very act of saving it.”
Despite the issues with the specific physical copy of this book that I received, I still enjoyed Yep’s unique take on mythology and his Chinese American set of tales. Definitely worthwhile reading and recommended especially for anyone interested in traditional tales or Chinese-American history. Adults of sensitive children may wish to pre-read as several stories, like most folklore, include difficult to downright gruesome events.