This lovely story was inspired by memories of visits to their Auntie Yang’s in the Chicago area by the author and illustrator sisters. Auntie Yang made sure their family visited often, so the four cousins would grow up “as close as four soybeans in a soybean pod.”
One Sunday, after dinner, the two families went for a drive, and they discovered a field of soybeans. As the author explains: “In Illinois, soybeans were grown to feed cows and pigs, not people – but in China, soybeans were one of the most important foods of all.” Auntie Yang yelled “Stop the car!” They spoke to the farmer, who allowed them to take some soybean plants home. They cooked them, and Auntie Yang taught them how to eat them. That, the author, reports, was our family’s first soybean picnic.
The next summer they did it again, this time inviting other Chinese families from around Chicago. Word spread, and the picnic eventually got too big to hold in Auntie Yang’s yard:
“Eventually, more than two hundred Chinese mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children gathered at a city park for the annual soybean event.”
When Auntie and Uncle Yang were in their seventies, all their brothers and sisters from China were finally able to come to America and they held a special soybean picnic in their honor, declaring it the greatest soybean picnic ever.
The author and illustrator sisters have notes at the end of the book, including real pictures of the four cousins, photos of picking soybeans, and of the actual picnic buffet table. There is also a sidebar with information about soybeans, called mao dou in Chinese (known as edamame by the Japanese and by American consumers, who do not always realize the “exotic” edamame is actually a soybean).
There is also a glossary at the end with an “approximate” pronunciation guide for some Mandarin words. (Mandarin, the official language of China and Taiwan, as well as one of four official languages of Singapore, uses tones in addition to letters to convey meaning, so it is hard to reproduce just by seeing the letters.)
Beth Lo is an award-winning ceramic artist, and she came up with the idea of painting the pictures for the story on porcelain plates. The results are not only gorgeous, but exemplify the theme of feasting.
At a charming website dedicated to the book, you can see each character with their names written in Mandarin and English. You can also check out the wonderful review by Jama, who reveals she has six Auntie Yangs, as well as many fond memories of eating boiled soybeans just like the characters in the story.
Evaluation: The story is lovely, but the enchanting illustrations alone are worth the price of the ticket!
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2012