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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #48 (November 28, 2006), page 16.

Somber, disturbing, and important


By Milly Lee

Illustrations by Yangsook Choi

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006

Paperback, 32 pages, $6.95

By Josephine Bridges

Earthquake is a somber and disturbing little book, both in its language and in its design and illustration. It’s exactly the right book for a child who needs to know how it really feels to be in an earthquake, as opposed to the science behind these events or the thrill one can experience only at a distance from disaster. It’s not a very comforting book, but there’s something refreshingly straightforward about it. Kids appreciate that.

The book’s cover depicts the earthquake’s aftermath, children in a city of fallen buildings, and even the title — upper-case with cracks running through the letters — and names of the author and illustrator off kilter. The title page has a starry sky in the background, and the next page shows the stars winking out above a peaceful city. Then the narrative begins.

A little girls peers through a cracked window at a wooden power pole ominously atilt, the wires it carries dipping low and dangerous. "This morning the earth shook and threw us from our beds," she begins. "We were not hurt, just stunned." We slowly learn from pictures of ancestors askew on the walls and from the names of family members that this is a Chinese-American family. "BaBa hurried out to seek help and returned with a cart and two kinsmen." The feeling of urgency is increased here with fire looming in the background.

The illustration of early dawn at Portsmouth Square is strangely peaceful. "All of Chinatown must have been there." But the tranquility is disrupted by a policeman on horseback who tells the crowd they must go to Golden Gate Park. Tired, hungry, thirsty, the little family makes its slow progress. "Up the steep hills, across the city, we pushed and pulled the heavy cart." Finally out of danger, they pause to look out over the panorama of the smoldering city, then go to a tent to eat, drink, and rest. "We were safe for now while the city still burned and the earth still shook."

Many of the children aged four to eight for whom this book was written will not be able to read the wonderful author’s note that follows the narrative, but parents can help read and discuss the wealth of information here, including that the original list of the dead "did not include women and children, Native Americans, African Americans, or Japanese and Chinese immigrants because they were not allowed to vote or own property at that time."

Thanks to Milly Lee and Yangsook Choi for writing and illustrating a difficult but important story. Bravo to Farrar, Straus & Giroux for publishing a book that deserves to be a bestseller, but probably won’t be.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books