Making Friends with Billy Wong

When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, we understandably think about the African-American experience. I wrote once before about how Mexican Americans in California were segregated into various schools and we have all heard of the horrible injustice of the Japanese Internment camps. As a Jew, I have long heard stories of quotas and some regions not allowing Jews to purchase homes or join certain clubs. There has always been a fear of things that are different and unknown. For this year’s Multicultural Children’s Book Day, one of the books I was sent was Making Friends with Billy Wong, by Augusta Scattergood. This book gave me pause to consider the Asian American experience, especially in the South.

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This novel focuses on Azalea Ann Morgan, a young girl who is sent to live with a grandmother that she barely knows during the summer of 1952. Her grandmother needs some help while she is recuperating from an injury and Azalea has been volunteered for the job. Azalea is very shy and doesn’t like talking to strangers, and more than anything, she misses her best friend back in Texas. Grandmother Clark has a very strong personality and is seen as something of one of the town’s matriarchs, but that doesn’t mean that Azalea likes her right off the bat. Early on, she encourages Azalea to befriend Billy Wong, a young Chinese-American boy living with his great-aunt and uncle and helping them at their grocery store.

Azalea is not comfortable with meeting anyone new, but especially not a “foreigner,” which is how she sees Billy. She fears going to Mr. Wong’s store assuming that she won’t be able to understand anything he says since she doesn’t speak Chinese. Grandma Clark, ever the one to bring people together, finally helps Azalea break down her walls by making her take Billy to ice cream on a scorching hot day.

The reason that Billy is living in in Paris Junction is so that he can go to a better school. According to the author’s note in the back of the book, the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the South also impacted the Chinese immigrant population, which was surprisingly large. In 1927, a Supreme Court case classified Chinese Americans as “colored,” which led to many communities not allowing Chinese students to attend the segregated white schools. for Billy’s character, in his hometown he would have to go to the Negro school, which offered a substandard education. There had been a Chinese Mission school that his older siblings had attended, but it closed down. However, in Paris Junction Billy was allowed to go to the white school. While on the topic of Billy, from time to time, the novel switches to Billy’s voice in the form of his writings. From these small moments, we can see the prejudice from Billy’s eyes which lends additional power to his plight.

I was surprised to learn of the large number of Chinese immigrants that moved to the south as migrant labor and wound up opening  neighborhood groceries that served black and white clientele. But as one might imagine, their being in cities that historically had been segregated didn’t always allow for smooth transitions. As Augusta Scattergood alludes to in this book, other students were not happy with the notion of students who were different coming in and excelling on the sports teams and in the classroom. Local businessmen were also not always thrilled with the Chinese grocery stores, especially if they took business away from them. By setting this novel up through the eyes of 11 and 12 year olds, you can really get a sense of what the experience was like.

Scattergood uses her novel to touch on a variety of topics. There is the fear of those that are different. There is also a general anxiety around people and learning how to deal with strangers. Azalea and her grandmother learn how to be a family and how important family bonds are. Finally, there is also the character of Willis DeLoach who has a lot of anger and is incredibly misunderstood, but behind his prejudice is a little bit of jealousy and a lot of burdens bigger than a boy his age should be dealing with. Grandma Clark is the glue trying to put the whole town together.

This middle grade novel has a lot going for it and was a great read. Many kids can empathize with one or more of the characters and see how hard it is to be different. I also think that reading the author’s note and understanding the true history behind this story is important. A great read for kids 8+.

MCBookDay-white-1I received this book from Scholastic Books as a part of the 2017 Multicultural Children’s Book Day.

I have been involved with Multicultural Children’s Book Day since it started. Having grown up in Los Angeles, surrounded by a diverse community, I never thought about the notion of being different. Now that I live in a small town in the south, I am much more aware just how hard it can be to be a minority and to be misunderstood. I have always tried to teach my daughters to love everyone and to believe that we are all one human race and that all of our histories and differences should be celebrated.  I also know how important it is to be able to see yourself in the books you read, even more so when you are in the minority, so I look forward to this blogging event every year.

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is in its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.

Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team is on a mission to change all of that.

Current Sponsors:  MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include ScholasticBarefoot Books and Broccoli. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. RomanAudrey Press, Candlewick Press,  Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTVCapstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle SwiftWisdom Tales PressLee& Low BooksThe Pack-n-Go GirlsLive Oak MediaAuthor Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books

Author Sponsor include: Karen Leggett AbourayaVeronica AppletonSusan Bernardo, Kathleen BurkinshawDelores Connors, Maria DismondyD.G. DriverGeoff Griffin Savannah HendricksStephen HodgesCarmen Bernier-Grand,Vahid ImaniGwen Jackson,  Hena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana LlanosNatasha Moulton-LevyTeddy O’MalleyStacy McAnulty,  Cerece MurphyMiranda PaulAnnette PimentelGreg RansomSandra Richards, Elsa TakaokaGraciela Tiscareño-Sato,  Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.

MCBD Links to remember:

MCBD site: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/

Free Multicultural Books for Teachers: http://bit.ly/1kGZrta

Free Kindness Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/teachers-classroom-kindness-kit/

Free Diversity Book Lists and Activities for Teachers and Parents: http://bit.ly/1sZ5s8i

Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use their official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

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