Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2009
In bright, quick free-verse snapshots, Russell highlights her childhood path to writing. At five, Ying visits relatives in Mainland China and effortlessly memorizes classical poems better than her older cousins, earning a life-changing reward: dan lai. "[I]t looks like a big, round moon / has fallen into my bowl," and after eating it, she refrains from brushing her teeth to savor the taste forever. But it's expensive, and the town where it's a specialty is too far from Hong Kong. Ying hears everywhere that boys are better than girls, but Ma sends her to private school even at the cost of grocery money. Maternal support, the praise of a few teachers (others mock her) and a cousin’s crucial declaration that "dan lai is made from milk. / Milk is protein, and / protein will strengthen your brain," convince Ying that she can and must become a writer—for the excuse of requiring "MORE dan lai!" It's clear that she truly loves writing anyway, but dan lai provides the sensory thread of this sweet, clear tale, which ends with two victories.
Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children
Yana V. Rogers, September 23, 2009
Young girls in Hong Kong during the 1960s lived in a society that favored boys in a multitude of ways that Yeung Ying felt and heard every day. As the first-born girl, Yeung Ying caused some disappointment to her father's family, to the point that her father dressed her baby sister in boys' clothes in the hopes of producing a boy the third time around. Fortunately, Yeung Ying was blessed with a strong-minded mother who valued education and insisted that Yeung Ying attend private school, even though this decision caused financial hardship for the family.
Yeung Ying loved school and did well, especially in writing. She dreamed of becoming a writer some day, inspired by a sweet dessert to which she was treated by a kind uncle after she recited many classical Chinese poems from memory. Although most girls did not attain more than a primary school education and they certainly did not earn an income from writing, Yeung Ying pursued her dream to attend college and publish her work.
This beautifully-crafted collection of poems will leave a lasting impression about the power of determination, encouragement, and creativity in the face of pervasive oppression. Just as the author herself was inspired by a sweet treat, she has written a delectable book that wraps a number of economics ideas into a unique collection of free-verse poetry. Readers will find interesting little stories with big lessons in every bite.
School Library Journal
Angela J. Reynolds, October 1, 2009
This collection of free-verse poems is based on Russell's childhood and her journey to becoming an author. Yeung Ying leaves Hong Kong to spend the summer with her Uncle Five and his children in mainland China. When she recites classical Chinese poems for him, he rewards her with a special treat—a bowl of custard known as dan lai. She loves this treat so much that she vows to be a good student and become a writer. In 1960s China, many girls do not get the chance to have the education she receives, but she has financial support from her uncle, who appreciates her intelligence and determination, and her mother stands up for her right to an education. The story is revealed through Russell's tender poems that beautifully describe Yeung Ying's surroundings, her home life, her family, and her inner thoughts. The poems are simple, yet filled with images and language that create an atmosphere that brings the child's early years to light. Aspiring young authors will be encouraged and inspired by this patchwork of poetry.
Booklist, November 1, 2009
Based on the author’s experiences growing up in 1960s Hong Kong, this novel-length, free-verse poem follows a young girl who aspires to be a writer in a society that still questions the value of educating girls. Luckily, Yeung Ying’s mother, who received an education herself, feels otherwise, and she scrapes together private-school tuition for her daughter. In individual, chapter-length selections, Yeung Ying gives a strong sense of her loving family, her vibrant neighborhood, and the impact of specific, life-shaping experiences, all in a spare, believable young voice. Readers will come away with a strong sense of both an individual and a culture, and they’ll appreciate the importance that small, daily details hold in Yeung Ying’s life: a shockingly delicious taste of a dessert becomes the seed that grows into her writing dream, for example. Young people will be inspired by Yeung Ying’s determination to realize her ambition and to find inspiration everywhere, from overheard snatches of apartment-house gossip to quiet family moments: “I always / perk up my ears / for treasures.” A welcome glossary and author’s note add further cultural context.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January 10, 2010
This sequence of free-verse poems chronicles the author's young life in Hong Kong, following her from her early delight in reciting poetry to her gradual awareness of herself as a budding writer. The collection of nearly forty verses, each a spare couple of pages or so long and topped with a title, weave together a vivid picture of her childhood experience. Despite much of the family's disappointment in her being a girl, she's championed by her fierce and determined mother and encouraged by teachers who see her promise (and discouraged by the denigrations of those who don't); she gains skill writing letters for her illiterate grandmother, but her real incentive is her belief that being a writer will bring her unlimited access to her favorite tasty dessert. While the poems are inclined to be prosy and literal, they've got an appealing immediacy, and they describe a setting that'll be glamorously unusual to most readers. Yet the narrator's feelings, as she yearns for validation of the pastime that grows increasingly important to her, will be universally recognizable, and the point that youthful talent blossoms under encouragement is one that readers with their own dreams will particularly appreciate. An author's note and a glossary conclude the book.
BookDragon, Smithsoniah Asian Pacific American Program
Terry Hong, September 16, 2009
Based on Ching Yeung Russell’s own path toward becoming a writer, Tofu Quilt is one delicious free-verse memoir. In the summer before she starts kindergarten, Yeung Ying is a rambunctious young child who cannot sit still, but can effortlessly recite the difficult classical poems that her older cousins struggle with. She gets her first taste of dan lai, an expensive milky custard dessert so delicious that she does not brush her teeth that evening, “hoping to savor the taste … forever / and ever.” When her mother tells her that she “will be rich in many ways” as long as she stays in school, Yeung looks forward to her education as a means to savor more dan lai.
Growing up in 1960s Hong Kong, Yeung hears over and over how education is wasted on girls. But her mother stands strong against controlling in-laws and insists Yeung will remain in her private school, even when the family can’t pay the rent. Yeung’s tailor father, in his spare time with his spare materials, makes warm quilts for his family stitched with patchwork fabric “as square as chunks of tofu.” While Yeung sees them as signs of her family’s paucity, she also recognizes them as “Ba Ba’s labor of / love.”
Yeung is the designated letter-writer for her illiterate grandmother who first makes her think about what she might be when she grows up. “‘Now I am not worried / you will starve when you grow up,’ she says / ‘At least you can make a living / as a letter writer,” she tells Yeung. An older cousin gives Yeung her epiphany about a writer’s life as a means of savoring more precious dan lai: “‘Dan lai is made of milk. / Milk is protein, and / protein will strengthen your brain. / A writer must use her brain / to make up stories. / That’s why / you will have an excuse / to eat more dan lai.’”
Powered by memories of dessert, Yeung reads and writes, sometimes in secret, sometimes to insults from her 6th grade teacher who gives her “‘… the lowest grade I have ever / given a student!’” and sometimes to the highest praise as she is called out as “best in the class” in her 7th grade. She gives herself a pen name and becomes a published writer: “I, a girl of twelve years, have earned a fee from writing. / I have done something / that no one else /in any of the Yeung families has ever done.” Even as her relatives continue their lament that she was not born a boy, Yeung knows, “I will never wish to be a boy again. / I am very content / to be a girl.” A smart, talented, tenacious one at that!
With an effortless sparseness, Russell’s details are what make Tofu Quilt so memorable: a nosy neighbor who determines a family’s worth by what they eat for dinner, celebrating a level-eight typhoon because it’s a day without homework, a much-begged for first cup of coffee that ruins a 9th birthday, a spoonful of vinegar at a wonton stand to aid digestion. With gentle humor, Russell even captures her own husband as the kwailo tourist who “kneels in the middle of our narrow street, / his rear stuck up in the air” as he takes photos of their colorful clothes hung out to dry. You can’t help but giggle along.
Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup
Jama Rattigan, November 13, 2009
Imagine a warm bowl of steamed custard so incredibly delicious, it inspires a young girl to become a writer. This is exactly what happens to Yeung Ying in Tofu Quilt, a beautiful collection of free verse poems based on author Ching Yeung Russell's own childhood in 1960s Hong Kong.
The thirty eight luminous poems, told in Yeung Ying's lively, engaging voice, are brimming with candid observations and telling, authentic details which reveal a young writer in the making. Russell's lovingly crafted, spare verses flow effortlessly and resonate with simple truths.
While visiting her Uncle Five in Mainland China, five-year-old Yeung Ying reveals her startling ability to memorize and recite classical Chinese poems better than any of her older boy and girl cousins. Uncle Five rewards her with a bowl of dan lai -- a rare, expensive dessert that leaves her ravenous for more...
Yeung Ying has always heard that boys are better than girls. Fortunately, her mother, one of the few educated women in her age group, believes they are "just the same." The family makes many sacrifices to send Yeung Ying to private school, where she discovers her love for books and studies hard so that someday she can be rich enough to buy more dan lai.
By the age of eight, Yeung Ying is the designated family letter writer, and eventually a couple of teachers praise her writing. But Yeung Ying had never entertained the thought of actually pursuing writing as a career until her conversation with Cousin Yee, who tells her that becoming a writer would give her the perfect excuse to eat more dan lai, because it's made of brain-strengthening protein, something all writers need.
I love the elegant simplicity of Russell's verse, the total accessibility of Yeung Ying's inner and outer worlds, the realistic depiction of childhood joy, fear, yearning, hope, and disappointment, and above all, the revelation, time and again, that small, seemingly inconsequential events or experiences can play a significant role in shaping a young person's future.
From the very first poem, the words melted away; the carefully chosen images allowed me to enter the world of this tender memoir instantly. Yeung Ying's voice rings true, and her ingenuous, oftentimes humorous remarks are irresistibly endearing and wholly childlike. As she and her cousins climb a banyan tree pretending to be Tarzan, she describes the sounds they make...
Other poems describe Yeung Ying's hardworking father, a tailor who uses fabric scraps to construct a patchwork quilt with pieces "as square as chunks of tofu." We also meet her grandmother, teachers, and other members of the community. Especially notable are Mr. Wong, who "gives us the biggest wontons with the most shrimp inside," and Mr. Lee, Yeung Ying's seventh grade teacher, who praises her story about the wonton man, and tells her to keep trying because someday, she can be a writer.
I think Yeung Ying's struggles will resonate with the book's intended audience (ages 9-12), especially her encounters with her teachers -- the good ones inspire and encourage, the bad ones humiliate and demean. Even into adulthood, we remember how crucial a small crumb of encouragement can be. Tofu Quilt touches on so many important themes: self actualization/esteem/identity, family traditions, overcoming oppressive societal conventions, education, and breaking gender barriers.
As it turns out, Russell did not have her second bowl of dan lai until some twenty years after the first. In recent years, she has stunned her relatives by eating four bowls in one sitting. Just as five-year-old Yeung Ying did not drink tea or brush her teeth after that first bowl of dan lai because she wanted to savor it forever, I found myself reading and rereading these poems very slowly because I did not want the story to end. I can still picture the rows of flower stands at Victoria Park on New Year's Eve, hear the "tak tak, tok tok" of Ma's abacus, feel the elation of the children at the Level-Eight typhoon no school day, and almost taste Yeung Ying's first cup of coffee ("like the flavor of dark-burned rice on the bottom of the wok").
Tofu Quilt also includes a glossary and lovely Author's Note. I give this rich and inspiring book my highest five spoon rating. I know that when you read it, you will understand why I nominated it for a 2009 Cybils Award. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to make some custard.
A Patchwork of Books
Amanda, November 20, 2009
Tofu Quilt, a collection [of] poems by Ching Yeung Russell, is actually a story of the poet's life. Each poem helps to connect the pages into a beautifully written story, allowing for an experience of life in Hong Kong as a young girl, as well as a pretty great interpretation as to what it's like to turn a dream into reality. Russell wanted to be a writer more than anything, but was consistently turned away by male family members. She lets the reader in on just how she came to realize that big dream that previously seemed so impossible.
I loved the individual poems and the seemless way they seemed to flow into a single book. The main character was incredibly likable and left me really cheering for her, in hopes that she would indeed get to write (though I knew she was the author and obviously HAD succeeded). The added glossary of Chinese words was very helpful and the cover was intriguing. Overall a great addition to any poetry collection, but one that can also be handed to a preteen/teen that enjoys historical fiction.
Therese Kumasaka, December 2, 2009
Tofu Quilt is a collection of poems by Ching Yeung Russell about the author’s childhood in China and Hong Kong in the 1960’s. Although each poem focuses on a different theme, the book flows like a cohesive stream of memories. The time and place may differ, but readers will relate to Yeung Russell’s stories about family and discovering your place in the world. Young girls will particularly enjoy the poems about the author’s desire to become a writer, and how her mother, teacher, and a favorite uncle encouraged her to pursue her dream.
Yeung Russell’s use of humor makes Tofu Quilt an entertaining read. She writes about how a delicious dessert provided motivation for becoming a writer, and how she dreamt of marrying a bus driver to drive her around to “see more things” so that she could gain inspiration for her writing! Tofu Quilt is an easy to read, enjoyable collection of poems. The publisher recommends this book for ages 8-12, but I think that middle school-aged children would enjoy this book as well.
A Year of Reading
Mary Lee, December 8, 2009
This is the story of a girl growing up in a culture that values boys. Luckily, her mother scrapes together the money to send her daughter to school, where Yeung Ying falls in loves with books and stories and writing.
This is the story of a writer being born -- it is about her false starts and first steps and her perseverance and her dream.
This is the story of the impact a few good writing teachers can make on a writer's early life. The poem, "mr. hon," (did I mention, this is an autobiographical novel in verse?) tells about Yeung Ying's 4th grade teacher:
He reads us
a Chinese translation of a story
about three American boys from
a long time ago,
who rode a raft on the Mississippi River....
And Mr. Hon is the first teacher
who displays my stories
marked, "Great work!"
on the classroom bulletin board
Not until her seventh grade teacher does Yeung Ying get encouragement again, when she hears, "Your story really comes to life" and "You write very well./ Keep trying./ You can be a writer someday."
I nominate Mr. Hon and Mr. Lee for inclusion on our list of 100 Cool Teachers in Children's Literature.
Charlotte Richardson, December, 2009
The thirty-eight poems in award-winning author Ching Yeung Russell’s Tofu Quilt make a quilt themselves, patching together memories of Russell’s Hong Kong childhood in the 1960’s and her growing aspiration to become a writer. Each poem is a vibrant vignette; together they create a lively collage of images, impressions, and inspiration to tell a story that entertains and educates—and overcomes any child’s intimidation by free verse.
Russell’s childhood was not privileged, but her mother’s fierce advocacy of her daughter’s right to an education offered her opportunities beyond what girls of that era usually received. A taste of an expensive and rare treat, dan lai, on a visit to her mainland relatives, provides strong inspiration for this irrepressible child’s literary inclinations. She realizes that as a writer, she could afford to eat dan lai whenever she liked, and that’s much better than being a saleslady.
The book’s title refers to leftover squares of fabric, “…as big as my palm and as square as chunks of tofu” that her tailor father sews “one by one,/ piece by piece,/ into a big quilt/ with different colors and/ different textures.” The quilts don’t look like the ones from the store, and she hides them when friends come to visit. “But the quilts from the store/ don’t have the same feel/ as those made with/ Ba Ba’s labor of/ love.”
From a nosy woman who weighs her neighbors’ wealth by what they serve for supper, to the mirrors families hang for warding off bad luck, to her repeated readings of Tom Sawyer, Russell details a Hong Kong girl’s realization of the material with which she will lay a path to her future as a writer. She writes about her first cup of coffee and her traumas with math. Even her first glimpse of her future husband, she confesses in an author’s note, inspired a poem: “A kwailo tourist/ in faded blue jeans/ and a pair of dirty sneakers/ puts his big camera case on the ground/ and kneels in the middle of our narrow street,/ his rear stuck up in the air.”
A glossary of Chinese terms with pronunciation follows the text. Russell’s lively, humorous verse will delight young readers and particularly inspire those with secret, maybe not-yet-admitted-even-to-themselves literary aspirations.
Gender Equality Bookstore
Jyotsna Sreenivasan, December 19, 2009
I’ve never seen a book quite like Tofu Quilt. It is a collection of 38 free-verse poems about the author’s childhood in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s, and her desire to become a writer, despite the fact that she is a girl and is not expected to have a career.
At the age of five, Yeung is rewarded with a special dessert called “dan lai” for being able to recite Chinese poetry from memory. The reward awakens in her a desire to become educated and have enough money to buy more dan lai.
Her mother sends her to a private school, despite the fact that the family is poor. At the age of eight, Yeung writes letters for her illiterate grandmother, and at the age of 10, she does piecework for factories in order to earn money to buy books. At 12, she sells a story to a local newspaper, and this is the beginning of her writing career.
The poems are simple, story-like, and heartfelt. Some are humorous.
Ama, December 19, 2009
In this biographical novel in verse, the author tells of how she became a writer while growing up in a culture that did not value the worth of educating girls. The book begins with her trip to mainland China at age eight and ends when she is twelve. The verse beautifully illustrates her life in Hong Kong.
This is a wonderful story of how even when family and even society tells you that you cannot be what you aspire, you may very well prove them wrong.
Center for Children's & Young Adult Books, Minnesota State University
Gretchen Turner, December, 2009
Author Ching Yeung Russell tells some of her own experiences as a young writer in Tofu Quilt (Lee & Low). The free-verse poetry book in journal format describes the childhood of Yeung Ying who receives encouragement from her mother and doubt from everyone else about her in pursuit of a career in writing. The story starts out with five year old Yeung playing with her cousins during a carefree summer at Uncle Five’s home. Raised in China, Yeung is told that boys should be the only ones going to school past the primary grades, and girls should grow up to ―listen to their husbands. But it is the continued encouragement and defense of her mother and seventh-grade teacher who help her keep her dream of writing a reality. ― "He sees the talent of a writer- something far beyond the saleslady I thought I had to be." The journal trails off with Yeung writing of the world around her. This story speaks to those who are surrounded by criticism for going after what they most love by showing us a girl achieving success. Since we are left with Yeung Ying just starting out as a writer at age twelve, it would be nice to see a continuation of her journey. Especially interesting is the way she describes her aunts and uncles by using numbers according to their birth order such as Uncle Five, and Auntie Seven. The Chinese customs and language filtered throughout this book are explained in the glossary at the end.
Children's Book Examiner
Lori Calabrese, January 4, 2010
Poetry books such as The Tree that Time Built, and Poetry Speaks make wonderful collections to read through at once or to pick up at a whim for inspiration. Add Tofu Quilt to that list.
This collection of free verse poems tells the story of Yeung Ying, a young girl in Hong Kong in the 1960s who, against the conventions of society and family members, aspires to become a writer. In the 1960s, Ying was tired of hearing how important boys were. She knew she could write letters and recite poems even better than her boy cousins.
It was fascinating to read the story of Ying in poetry format that reads much like a diary. Young readers will find Ying endearing and enjoy hearing how Ying spent a summer living with her uncle and cousins before she started kindergarten, how her mother used what little money the family had to send Ying to a private school, and how Ying fell in love with books and writing.
As a book lover, I have to admit, I was partial to the poem "my books" where Yeung Russell talks about books being her world and companions. Even though her friends tease her, she loves them because their stories make her cry and she dreams that someday she will read her own book.
Fortunately that dream came to fruition with the publication of Tofu Quilt - an inspiring collection for any poetry lover.
It's not often that you can read the colorful experiences of daily life in another country, but in Tofu Quilt, you can step into the creativity of a young girl determined to succeed. And what's a Tofu Quilt you might ask? You'll just have to read the book to find out.
Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association
Sarah Park, February 24, 2010
Tofu Quilt, by Ching Yeung Russell, is a beautiful collection of poetry depicting one young girl’s struggles to get the same education as her male counterparts. Set in Hong Kong in the 1960s, the collection shows Yeung Ying reciting poems that even her older cousins cannot remember. As a reward, her uncle takes her all the way to another town for "dan lai", a special milk custard dish. She thinks, "dan lai must be a very special reward," and the delicious treat motivates her to continuing learning so she can become a writer. Yeung Ying explains that her mother, a “highly educated” woman, believes that women should be educated the same as men. She also tells the reader about Mr. Hon, who was the first teacher to display her stories even though she was “just a girl.” In these ways, the collection pays homage to the people who supported Yeung Ying’s education.
The poems are well written, poignant, and accessible even when addressing intense issues, such as how gender preferences have socialized and impacted girls, as well as the importance of literacy, self-advocacy and persistence. The author’s note describes how she continued to learn after she moved to the United States so she could share her childhood stories with American readers. Russell shows great promise in her debut poetry collection, and the committee felt the quality of her writing, as well as the content of her story, is worthy of the APALA Literature honor award.
Tales from the Tree House, Glendale (CA) Public Library
Cecile, April 1, 2010
The story of TOFU QUILT by CHING YEUNG RUSSELL is written in a free verse format that is quick, fun and easy to read. It's about a little girl who is told that there are a lot of things in life that she can not do because of the simple fact that she is a girl. However, this little girl knows that she has a special talent and that in her life, no matter what happens she can do great things. Her talent lies in her own hands and mind, she can write wonderful and inventive stories and letters. She starts writing letters for her illiterate aunts until she is told that at least she will not be hungry in life, since she can write. However, she is lucky in a sense that her mother thinks very highly of her and supports her in sending her to a private school where she gets exposed to great books and literature. This is a semi-autobiographical story by the author Ching Yeung Russell that is inspiring, empowering and uplifting, especially for girls.