As a child growing up in Atlanta, author Julie Leung didn’t have the opportunity to read about inspiring Chinese-Americans and, specifically, Chinese-American artists. When she learned about Tyrus Wong, the artist who created the style in the Walt Disney film Bambi, through his New York Times obituary, Leung decided to write his story in the picture-book biography Paper Son: The inspiring story of Tyrus Wong, immigrant and artist.
With beautiful illustrations by Chris Sasaki, Leung writes Wong’s life story. She begins with Wong’s immigration to the United States as a nine-year old in 1919, at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act was in full force.
Before he became an artist named Tyrus Wong,
he was a boy named Wong Geng Yeo,
Who traveled with his father
across a vast ocean to America,
clutching a bundle of papers in his hand.
Due to the Exclusion Act, Wong and his father have forged papers as the merchant Look Git and his son Look Tai Yow. Every night on the voyage, Tyrus, who even at an early age loved art, studies the papers that contain the answers to his new life.
When father and son arrive in California, the father clears immigration, but Tyrus is held back and forced to wait.
Days turned to weeks.
This new land was not what he expected.
The streets were not lined with gold…
There was no drawing paper.
No ink. No paint.
He watched the sun move slowly across the sky,
always arching back toward the home he’d left behind.
Finally, Tyrus is asked the questions he prepared for. He clears immigration and is reunited with his father. His father tells them they must now look for opportunities: at school, Tai Yow is Americanized to Tyrus and eventually the family saves enough money for him to enroll at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.
Tyrus gets a job at Walt Disney Studios and then, when he hears about Disney making the movie Bambi, he, in the refrain of his father’s words, sees an opportunity.
Tyrus thought about the mother he had left behind in China,
and the father who always believed in him.
He thought about his style of painting —
one that combined East and West,
his past and present.
Leung does an excellent job in sharing Wong’s story. The refrain of opportunity and hard work—like many stories of immigration—runs throughout the book, but it is gentle and never preachy. At the time, Wong didn’t receive the credit due to him for creating the world of Bambi and throughout his life he was not recognized for his art. However, he continued to create and artistic expression remained key to his life. That Leung emphasizes this element of Wong’s life is important and is a lesson that many need to learn (and re-learn).
Leung’s prose is imaginative and poetic—as a janitor, Wong “swirled the soapy water around, the mop dancing in his hands like a paintbrush”—and the rhythm of the text makes it perfect for reading aloud.
Sasaki’s illustrations are rich in detail and pair well with Leung’s words. He also does well to find ways to show readers today what life would have been like for Wong in 1938 when he joined Walt Disney in the early days of animation. Wong is pictured at his desk, surrounded by other animators, all drawing at their desks. Wong, however, is the only person pictured with black hair.
In her author’s note, Leung writes that her family immigrated to the United States from a village just 40 miles away from Wong’s and she identifies with the resilience that Wong and his father displayed as immigrants in a country that did not want them. In sharing his story, Leung helps to show the ways in which Wong left his mark as an artist and also to give him the recognition he deserves.