cover image Coolies


Yin. Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, $17.99 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-399-23227-5

In an impressive debut, Yin illuminates a dark corner of American history--the monumental labor of the thousands of Chinese immigrants who helped build the transcontinental railroad. ""Look, Little Wong, this is the land of opportunity!"" cries Shek to his brother when their difficult sea voyage ends in San Francisco. Soon, however, the boys discover a harsher reality as they face discrimination and derision, particularly from the tyrannical railroad bosses who call them ""coolies."" The brothers toil under exhausting and often dangerous conditions (because they are small, they are made to set the dynamite for tunnels through the Sierras), and join their fellow laborers in a strike when they learn that non-Chinese workers are being paid more. The strike fails, work continues and, in a final insult, everyone but the Chinese are invited to the celebration of the meeting of the Eastern and Western rail lines in Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869. ""Call us what you will, it is our hands that helped build the railroad,"" says Shek, with the even tones and spare dignity that characterize Yin's exposition. Soentpiet (Where Is Grandpa?) floods his crowded compositions with exaggerated sunlight, candlelight, firelight, etc., throwing his palette into theatrical, overdone shades; this approach, unfortunately, works against Yin's restraint and balance. The tale ends on an upbeat note as the brothers establish a bright future in San Francisco; a framing device that links the story to the present day shores up its relevance for contemporary readers. Ages 5-up. (Feb.)