Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story




Winner of the Carter G. Woodson Book Award presented to exemplary books written for children each year, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story is another top-notch biography by Paula Yoo, who also wrote the popular Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds. Shining Star tells the little-known story of Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American born at the turn of the century. Since her childhood Anna was dedicated to becoming a movie star against everybody’s wishes and expectations. Her parents forbade her from becoming an actress and Hollywood was not receptive to Chinese actors. These barriers did not hold Wong back; she persevered and after many years of practice she was “discovered” by a director. After she begins earning money, her family has a change of heart and begins supporting her dream of becoming a movie star. Defined and limited by her ethnicity, Wong takes on some small roles and is frustrated by the discriminatory practices and negative portrayals of Chinese people in film. During her career, minority actors were not allowed to kiss Caucasian actors on screen and most films created roles that represented docile and obedient or sinister and conniving Chinese characters. 
 
Yoo’s book portrays a strong female role model and shows an era that not only limited the success of females (women couldn’t vote, own property, or attend many universities), but also limited the freedoms of many minority groups. The book has many valuable lessons for students as young as seven who can understand the concepts of following one’s dream, perseverance, and standing up for what you believe in—all principles Wong demonstrates. Other themes represented in the book are forgiveness, the ability to change your mind and providing support to somebody who is following their dreams, as demonstrated by Wong’s parents.

The book importantly lends itself to starting a conversation about racism, discrimination, and stereotyping with young learners. Some questions to ask might include: How is the current reality for Asian-American actors similar and different from that experienced by Anna May Wong at the turn of the century? Why do you think Wong was turned down for the roles she sought? What assumptions were people making about her appearance and ability?

Shining Star is a valuable addition to any diverse classroom library not only for its concise, powerful and ultimately inspirational story told with captivating illustrations, but for its ability to portray the damaging nature of stereotypes and harsh effects of discrimination.

Additional Resources

  •  About Ana May Wong: Watch and hear more about Anna May Wong in this short six minute film “In Her Own Words” which would make a great companion piece to a classroom read. Listen to author Paula Yoo discuss the importance of Anna May Wong’s story in this brief video clip.  
  • About Asian American Stereotyping: Read about critical and acclaimed successes, as well as persistent stereotypes of Asian-American writers, artists, and actors from Asian-Nation, a website by Professor C.N. Lee. Also, visit Teaching Tolerance’s “I Am Asian American” Toolkit for helpful resources and reflective questions on building an inclusive classroom for Asian-American ethnicities.