Saturday, February 12, 2022

Paula Yoo: Keynote

Paula Yoo is a book author, screenwriter, and musician. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement (Norton Young Readers) was nominated for the 2021 National Book Award Longlist: Young People’s Literature. Her book won the 2021 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and was selected as a 2021 Junior Library Guild Gold Standard and the 2021 Amazon Editors’ Pick for Best YA. It has received 5 starred reviews and national coverage in The New York Times, TIME, NPR, The Today Show, NBC News, and Good Morning America. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry is also the National Education Association (NEA) “Read Across America” YA book selection for May 2022. Her other books include Good Enough (HarperCollins), Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, and Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank (Lee & Low Books). Her TV credits range from NBC’s The West Wing to The CW’s Supergirl, and she has sold TV pilots and feature scripts. She is also a former journalist (The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, and PEOPLE). When she’s not writing, Paula is a professional freelance violinist. Website:

Paula Yoo, presenting at #scbwiWinter22

Paula tells us she never saw Asian American representation in school or books as a child. No AAPI history was taught, and that erasure had an impact: "I felt cheated. I had lost a valuable part of not just my childhood, but my identity."

The Asian stereotypes of martial arts, being whiz kids at math and science are harmful, diminishing individual achievements and de-humanizing people. And Paula explored those ideas in her debut YA novel, "Good Enough."

cover of "Good Enough" YA novel by Paula Yoo

Researching NF for children and teens. "Go beyond Google," and newspaper articles. For From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement, Paula visited libraries, poured through court records, newspaper articles, letters, flyers for protests, and most importantly, conducted interviews. 

cover of "From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement"

Through those interviews, she met Jared, the son of Vincent's fiancée (who had married someone else after Vincent was killed). Jared's discovering his family's secret became, as Paula put it, "the emotional spine" of her book.

The book has two threads - one the historical retelling of Vincent's murder, the Civil Rights trials, and the start of the Asian American rights movement, and the other Jared's perspective of discovering and uncovering his family's secret history - his Mom's connection to Vincent Chin.

Paula advises that it's really important to try to interview subjects, or people who knew them. When you interview in person, on zoom, or on the phone... you pick up tone, the light in their eyes, their emotions -- and it will infuse your work. For her book Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story, interviewing Dr. Lee showed her his positive spirit which helped him cope with humor rather than anger.

Cover image of "Sixteen years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story"

And for her book Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank, meeting Professor Yunus in person led to him opening up about his childhood, how his mother would share their food with homeless people, and how that inspired him to come up with his economic theory to fight poverty.

Setting becomes a character. Paula discusses how visiting the sites of her books gives her a visceral sensation to include in the writing.

Paula asks us to consider: What happens when we are erased? In the middle of this pandemic, research is showing that 1 out of 4 AAPI youth say they have experienced racist bullying. 

Today's pandemic has seen a parallel pandemic of anti-Asian stereotypes and violence, and Paula tells us of her own experience with racism today and how it motivates her. 

"Like history repeats itself, so does hope."

Just like coalitions formed back in the protests of Vincent Chin's killing and the injustice of the killers walking free, Paula cites the AAPI community joining with the Black Lives Matters movement. And today, New Jersey and Michigan are the first two states to mandate teaching Asian American history in K-12 schools.


Finally, Paula puts out a call to our action in writing nonfiction books for kids and teens:

It is more important than ever that we make sure they know the whole truth. What happens in our past, influences our present, and what we do today influences the future - and who better to shape our future than our young readers?

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