Saturday, October 21, 2017
October 21-22, 2017: Children’s Histories: The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball
[This weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to this special post on Yang’s book.]
On what a young adult novel can add to our collective memories.
As someone who believes that the story of the Chinese Educational Mission is one of the American histories most in need of adding to our collective memories—for its own complex and inspiring sake, and for the many histories to which it connects—I’ve thought a great deal about where and how we might turn to help create such an addition. There are historical texts we could all peruse, such as Yung Wing’s autobiography My Life in China and America (1909). There are websites we could all visit, such as CEM Connections, an evolving compilation (by their descendents) of biographies of the 120 Educational Mission students. There’s the idea of constructing a historic site for the Chinese Educational Mission in Hartford (where its headquarters were located), a project that is purely hypothetical at the moment but to which I remain broadly committed nonetheless and which could become a space for visitors to learn more about the CEM. And of course there are various works of scholarly and narrative history on or related to the CEM, each of which has something to add to how we remember and understand this community, moment, and set of American histories and stories.
Until I learned of Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball (2017), however, I’ll confess that I had not thought nearly enough about what children’s or young adult literature have to offer (this despite all the good reminders that this week’s blog subjects, among many others, have provided me over the years). Yang’s young adult novel focuses on a fictional protagonist, Woo Ka-Leong (also known as Leon), who, along with his older brother, becomes one of the 120 young men who travel from China to the United States to take part in the Chinese Educational Mission. Just as I have done in my own writing about the CEM students, Yang uses their connection to baseball as a lens through which to write about a number of aspects of this community: of course their complex and evolving relationship to and combination of aspects of both American and Chinese culture, but also their relationship to each other (Leon and his brother diverge on the idea of the sport in particular), to European American peers and adversaries, and to a number of other historical and symbolic issues that I won’t spoil here. Just as my teacher and mentor Proal Heartwell does in his book A Game of Catch (2014), Yang makes baseball a perfect lens through which to frame her ethnic historical young adult novel.
That’s one lesson of Yang’s book, I’d say—the reminder (one critics of Colin Kaepernick and his peers would do well to remember) that sports, far from being separate from our social and political issues, always echo and extend those other cultural and historical elements. Helping young adults think about that side to sports is a great goal for any YA novel, I’d say. Another vital goal is to highlight the similarities and differences that audience members might find with historical and cultural figures and communities. Of course a Chinese American reader might find very different such comparisons to Leon than a European American one, and my mixed-race sons might find there own ways in—but in each and every case, there would be shared aspects and divergent ones, echoes of our own lives and identities and moments that feel quite distinct or unfamiliar. The more all readers—and perhaps especially young adult readers—can find both those familiar and those unfamiliar sides to characters and stories, the more they can both recognize our shared humanity and empathize with the very different ways folks have experienced human history. Yang’s book, like the other great texts I’ve highlighted this week, help YA readers and all of us do both of those important things.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?