City Streets, Bright Smiles
Fast pace, honking horns, dodging strollers, screeching subways—and kids thrilled to have an author visit. Snapshots of my one-week visit to New York and surrounding areas, with schools as varied as New Yorkers are. At two big public schools, I addressed kids filling auditorium seats; at a prestigious private academy, I talked in quiet classrooms; in a leafy suburban town, kids sat on the floor of a well-stocked library; in an inner-city charter school with no library, seventh graders asked great questions. Fourth graders through high school seniors, the students welcomed me with bright smiles and smart questions. Altogether, I spoke to about 900 kids at five schools—students from many diverse backgrounds. Many were the same age as the Chinese boys in my book, The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball.
The week started with a school whose name I couldn’t resist: Yung Wing Elementary (P.S. 124). In Manhattan’s Chinatown, it is named for a man I admire enormously: the man who dreamed up and led the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States. Born in China in 1828, Mr. Yung Wing became the first Chinese to graduate from an American university—Yale. Against long odds, he returned to China, taught himself to read his native language, and managed to convince the most powerful men ruling China to send a large group of boys to study in the United States in 1872. One man’s dream and willpower made a huge difference—and inspired me to write The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball.
Yung Wing Elementary is nestled below a high-rise housing project near the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, and its principal, Alice Hom, grew up in New York. She makes sure the kids know who Yung Wing was—and she invited me to speak because the famous man looms large in my book. (My main character hits him with a snowball by mistake!) In the school’s auditorium, I spoke to the entire fourth grade one period and the entire fifth grade the next, about 240 students in all. These kids, many of them low-income, ordered and bought more copies of my book than any other school: 28 copies. I personally signed all of them, with their names. About 92 percent of the students are Chinese or Chinese American.
Not far away, on a leafy street in Brooklyn Heights, stands the distinctive, castle-like tower of Packer Collegiate Institute, an independent college-preparatory school. Founded in 1845—before the birth of the boys of the Chinese Educational Mission—its halls ring with voices of students ranging from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. I addressed high school Chinese classes, speaking as much Mandarin as they could understand. Which was a lot! It was fun to do my talk in Chinese.
The next morning, I took a train to Scarsdale, about half an hour north of the city. There, at Greenacres School, I spoke to 66 fifth graders, first in the library and then in three separate classrooms. They live in an affluent area with beautiful houses, and their school has a terrific library and librarian, Carole Phillips. Many are children of Europeans or Latin Americans who work in New York, so they understood about balancing different cultures in their lives. Each classroom had a different personality.
Wagner Middle School (P.S. 167) is a large school located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It has 15 sixth grade classes, totaling about 450 students—a diverse group of students with varied interests who read on a range of reading levels. There I did my presentation three times in a large auditorium with squeaky wooden seats. Afterwards, many kids rushed forward, eager to get my autograph on their notebooks or other scraps of paper. Friendly and enthusiastic, they were wowed by having a real author visit their school. Made me feel like a star!
Across the river in Jersey City, I was invited to speak at BelovED Community Charter School. Founded in 2012, the school is inspired by Martin Luther King’s vision of a “beloved community.” Many scholars arrived at the school below grade level and now perform above. Every classroom door features a different college, to encourage kids to aim high. I spoke to all 135 seventh graders in three classroom talks. The hallways ring with high energy, yet the students were thoughtful and respectful. Many of them are children of immigrants, so they could relate to my story. Math teacher Carolyn Yuhas, my son-in-law's aunt, introduced me to the school.
On Saturday, I did my only talk open to the public, at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It’s an excellent museum founded in 1980 and now housed in a beautiful new space on Centre Street. Once the site of a sewing machine shop, the first floor was designed by renowned architect Maya Lin, and many of the exhibits were written or performed by well-known Chinese Americans, including playwright David Henry Hwang and writer Maxine Hong Kingston. This includes a short video about Yung Wing, with a voice reading lively passages from his autobiography. I spoke in their sunlit speaker’s space, attended by many of my New York friends, including four classmates from Princeton.
The final talk of my tour was at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, where faculty members and students were eager to hear my tales about the Chinese boys of the 1870s. They have a beautiful new student center and a program to encourage short-term visits overseas. My friend Bill Armbruster is on the board of regents and enjoys chaperoning international student trips.
The whole book tour was a fantastic experience for me. It’s great to see the eager faces of student readers and get a sense of how my book mirrors aspects of their lives.
Many thanks to Nancy Kennan and Gary Duberstein for their enthusiasm and help in organizing these New York visits! Wouldn't have happened without them.