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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #40 (October 4, 2005), page 20.

Set your heart to it

Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story

By Paula Yoo

Illustrations by Dom Lee

Lee & Low Books, 2005

Hardcover, 29 pages, $16.95

By Josephine Bridges

The sign at the swimming pool read, MEMBERS ONLY. Twelve-year-old Sammy Lee knew exactly what that sign meant — only whites were permitted to enter even though it was a public pool. This was the practice in 1932." With this deft opening, Paula Yoo transports her readers back through time to the bad old days of segregation. I like to imagine today’s children beginning this book and giving their parents and grandparents quizzical looks, as if ask, "What is this — some kind of a bad joke?"

Sammy Lee’s father, who "left Korea for a better life in America," wants his son to be a doctor. Sammy wants to be an Olympic champion. Instead of the predictable story of the rugged individualist who goes his own way regardless of what anyone else thinks, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds, winner of Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, is the unexpected and inspiring story of a young man who fulfills both his father’s goal and his own.

Sammy respects his father, but he’s dubious about the man’s conviction that, "In America, you can achieve anything if you set your heart to it" — especially when Sammy, voted Most Likely to Succeed by his classmates, isn’t even allowed to attend his own high school prom.

Sammy makes it to the 1948 Olympics in London, though, "the son of Korean immigrants, representing the United States." He wins a bronze medal in the three-meter springboard dive, but that’s not enough for him, so he chooses the dangerous three-and-a-half somersault for his final dive from the 10-meter platform. This is the dive that gives the book its title, a dive that would last sixteen seconds and for which he had trained sixteen years.

Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds is Paula Yoo’s first picture book, but you wouldn’t know it. She narrates this story with a light touch, letting the drama in real life carry it along. Dom Lee’s illustrations are flawless, evoking all those sepia-toned photographs we associate with our history.

Don’t miss the photo of the author and illustrator with Dr. Sammy Lee on the back cover flap. It’s thanks to people like these three that we know now that discrimination isn’t just against the law, it’s a really stupid idea.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books