Piece by Piece
Piece by Piece
Before she left, Nainai made a blanket for me.
Some squares are blue, like water or sky. Others hold scraps of our precious things: a corner of Nainai’s apron, my baby jacket, a sweater scented with her perfume.
We stitched it together, one memory at a time, piece by piece.
Written by Susan Tan and illustrated by Justine Wong, the children’s picture book Piece by Piece is a worthy addition to the growing body of contemporary children’s literature about culturally diverse communities in North America. Told from the perspective of Emmy Wu, a young Chinese girl who lives in the United States, Piece by Piece explores how one can relate with one’s cultural heritage and collective past. Emmy misses her grandmother because she has returned to China. However, Emmy eventually comes to accept her grandmother’s absence, treasure what her grandmother has left behind for her, and embrace the future eagerly. Realizing that she can never replicate the experiences that she and her grandmother have shared, Emmy recognizes that the two of them are intertwined and that they will continue to be so, regardless of what she does in the future. As a result, Emmy’s memories of her grandmother become a source of inspiration and pride instead of loss and regret. Wong’s colourful illustrations convey Emmy’s psychological state and depict key moments of the story’s plot through which they contribute to the readers’ visual experience of Tan’s narrative.
The story begins by showing Emmy’s enthusiasm for visiting museums with her grandmother (Nainai in Chinese), with whom she believes that “anything is possible”. One summer when Emmy’s grandmother is in town, the two of them visit several museums together, during which time her grandmother would also tell stories about her childhood back in China. Before leaving the United States, Emmy’s grandmother gives her a blanket made out of various materials. Some of the blanket’s squares are blue, and others consist of scraps from items with personal significance for both Emmy and her grandmother, such as Emmy’s baby jacket and her grandmother’s sweater.
When Emmy and her father visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, Emmy initially does not feel like exploring. Everything about the museum reminds her acutely of her grandmother and the time that they have spent visiting museums, sharing stories, and eating together. Emmy’s feelings of loneliness are exacerbated when she loses her blue blanket.
However, Emmy’s attitude shifts when she sees the historical house, Yin Yu Tang, inside the museum. Yin Yu Tang provides the backdrop for a pivotal scene with Emmy and her father as it reminds Emmy of the house that her grandmother had lived in as a child. In addition, a blue padded jacket in one of the house’s rooms reminds Emmy of her grandmother’s jacket. Emmy also imagines what it might have been like in the past when the house had celebrated Chinese New Year. After exploring Yin Yu Tang, Emmy realizes that the past still permeates the present in unexpected ways. She comes to terms with her feelings about missing her grandmother and experiences a revelation about her connection with the past. Like the house that has come from China and contains its own stories, Emmy realizes that her own life is part of a familial narrative that extends beyond her immediate surroundings and spans across space and time. Although her own experiences may differ from her predecessors, they nevertheless have things in common.
The past is interconnected with Emmy’s own experiences, much like the blanket that symbolizes her relationship with her grandmother. Initially, the blanket reminds Emmy of her grandmother’s absence and the loss of what is missing in her current life. However, the blanket becomes a source of continuity between the past and the present when Emmy realizes that her story is connected to a larger historical narrative about her family that unites her with her grandmother, father, and the rest of her family. Instead of viewing the blanket as something that is missing a piece, Emmy now sees the blanket as something with various pieces that coalesce together regardless of time and geography. Although she still misses her grandmother, Emmy regards this absence more optimistically as something with potential which will be filled with her own experiences as well as her grandmother’s stories. To keep her memories of her grandmother alive, Emmy recognizes the value of her grandmother’s stories of adventure and magic which she hopes to share with others.
When books deal with actual settings and scenarios, there is always the danger that they simply become a promotional vehicle at the expense of telling a compelling story. However, in this case, Yin Yu Tang’s background and historical context both provide a compelling backdrop that enriches Emmy’s story because it situates her individual experiences within a broader context of Chinese history. Indeed, Emmy’s story is not hers alone, but it is also a part of, or a piece of, a larger story about the Chinese diasporic community that has immigrated to North America to seek out a better life.
The story’s narrative impact is enhanced by Justine Wong’s illustrations which evoke the emotional impact of Emmy’s experiences and vibrancy of the scenes where the story’s actions unfold. For example, the pale blue illustrations that appear throughout the book convey the omnipresence of the past in Emmy’s mind. These include images of Emmy and her grandmother who spend time together in various activities, such as dancing and playing games, as well as images of objects that remind Emmy of her grandmother, such as the porcelain that she has used. Furthermore, Wong juxtaposes the past with images that convey the present action within Tan’s story. Giving both the past and present equal weight emphasizes the significance of the past’s emotional impact upon Emmy’s present state. Emmy’s being shown in many scenes emphasizes her observations and engagement with what she sees in the house.
In addition, Wong’s choice of pale blue for these illustrations establishes a visual connection between them and Emmy’s blanket. The pale blue functions as a motif that connects with the blue blanket’s symbolism with the past, memories, and generational stories. Her blanket is a metaphorical representation of her grandmother’s and her story—a story that is intertwined by different pieces that, insignificant by themselves, together make up an important whole that encapsulates both of their lives. This symbolism is further conveyed through the story’s references to pieces that are put together in different contexts. This includes the intricate latticework on Yin Yu Tang’s window and the pieces of pottery that her grandmother glues back together, both of which are culturally significant items from Chinese culture.
Similarly, Wong’s colourful illustrations convey Yin Yu Tang’s beauty and evoke the scenarios that Emmy imagines, such as Chinese New Year. Readers will get the sense that they are immersed in the reality of Emmy’s experience, which is enhanced by the fact that all of the illustrations creep up to the edge of the pages. The final image of Emmy with her father beneath the blue blanket metaphorically conveys the genealogical and cultural linkages that Emmy has accepted and integrated into her personal story.
The last few pages of Piece by Piece will give readers insightful and interesting information about the house Yin Yu Tang’s history and how it has been transported to the United States, reconstructed, and housed for permanent display in the Peabody Essex Museum. In terms of the house’s background, it was built during the late eighteenth century in China. A prosperous merchant surnamed Huang built the house Yin Yu Tang in China’s mountainous Huizhou region, located about 250 miles from Shanghai. The house’s name means “the hall of plentiful shelter”, and Huang built it with the hope of sheltering many future generations of his family. In 1996, the Huang family’s descendants decided that they wanted to preserve Yin Yu Tang, and so they started the process of moving it to the United States as part of a cultural exchange project. After its move, the house was then opened to the public in 2003. Readers can visit the actual house to learn more about the Huang family’s story through original audio and video clips, photographs, and other interpretive materials.
Due to the variety of topics covered, this book can be easily incorporated into existing institutional collections or class curricula. For example, Piece by Piece will provide teachers with a useful and interesting way for teachers to link Chinese history with the contemporary context in the United States. Topics to discuss could include how the meaning of Chineseness has changed over time and what it means to be Chinese in America today. Teachers can also start a conversation in the classroom about why particular items are significant to people as well as engage students with questions about memories and loss.
Piece by Piece would help to build school, public, or academic collections of children’s literature that already have existing materials about the Chinese community in North America.
Based in Massachusetts, Susan Tan is also the author of the “Cilla Lee-Jenkins” series. More information about her background and work is available at http://susantanbooks.com/. To learn more about illustrator Justine Wong’s work, go to http://patternsandportraits.com/.
Huai-Yang Lim, who resides in Edmonton, Alberta, has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.