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Seeing Emily
Joyce Lee Wong

Publishing Information: Amulet: New York, 2005
ISBN: 0810957574
: 268 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

In the successful style of David Levithan's The Realm of Possibility and Sonya Sones' What My Mother Doesn't Know , this free verse novel introduces readers to sixteen-year-old Emily, one of three Asian students at her high school in Richmond, Virginia, and the only child of protective, ambitious parents. She loves her parents and has always strived to please them, but her interest in a sexy new student, her growing passion for art, and her need to break away without breaking her tightly-knit family apart, force Emily to create a web of lies that ultimately traps her just as tightly as her circumstances. Through her art and her stay in Taiwan with an aunt, she finds a key to freedom and a new understanding of her place in the world.

Joyce Lee Wong's dazzling debut addresses the complexities of the contemporary Asian American experience, the pressures of American high school, and the age-old clash between teens and parents. This touching novel takes readers on a journey in which parents, peers and readers ultimately find new ways of seeing Emily.

Book Talk:

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Asian-American Conflicts  
Chinese Americas
Creative Writing
Cultural Assimilation
Cultural Traditions
Drama/Performing Arts
Entrepreneurship (Resteraunteur)
Family Relationships
Foreign Languages
Self Perception
Social Studies

Awards & Reviews:
In this coming-of-age montage, a Chinese-American teen discovers her world is "richer with the music of two languages, the rhythm of two cultures." American-born Emily has loving Chinese parents, two best friends, good grades, artistic talent and her first boyfriend, yet she's "yearning for something new." A devoted, obedient daughter, Emily helps out in her parents' Chinese restaurant. Her American girlfriends urge her to be more "elegant" by wearing make-up, while her shallow American boyfriend unwittingly racially stereotypes Emily by wanting her to look more "exotic." Afraid to disappoint anyone, Emily just wants to spread her wings and be herself. She's happiest when absorbed in her painting. Only after spending the summer in Taipei learning Chinese does Emily connect with her heritage and realize she can be at home in both worlds. Writing in free verse laden with Chinese images, Emily charts her progress from childhood to first romance to discovering her real self. The poetic form proves the perfect vehicle for Emily's unique voice. Sensitive and finely crafted. (Fiction. 14+)
--Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2005

In a highly visual, eloquently wrought first novel, Wong conveys a Chinese-American girl's coming of age. In free verse, narrator Emily, a blossoming artist, expresses her observations of loved ones (her concerned mother and father; her two best friends, Nina and Liz) and familiar places (like the Golden Palace restaurant her parents own). She also describes her view of recent acquaintances: new student Nick, who is destined to become her first boyfriend, and Alex, another newcomer whose Chinese parents are old friends of Emily's parents. Throughout the brief, impressionistic chapters, readers "see" Emily's urgency to grow independent as she turns 16, and at the same time, to try to keep hold of her heritage. Meanwhile, she passes through familiar phases-experimenting with make-up, challenging her parents, experiencing love and loss, and striving to reflect her inner self through two art projects. Not until Emily travels to Taiwan does she begin to understand that what she wants for herself is not so very different from what her parents hope for her. As Alex gently reminds her, it is all Chinese parents' dream that "their children...grow up/ to achieve their fullest potential." Ages 14-up. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
--Publishers Weekly, November 21, 2005

Gr 6-9-In free verse, 16-year-old Emily Wu, a talented artist, describes her daily life as she interacts with her Chinese immigrant parents; with her best friends, Nina and Liz; and with her first boyfriend, Nick. In the process she lies to her parents, experiments with makeup, and, little by little, loses her values. Readers will smell the aromas of the traditional dishes that her mother cooks, see the vibrant colors of the murals she paints, and relate to the discussions she and her friends have about grades, parents, and boys. They will also sense Baba and Mama's concern when they decide to send Emily to visit her aunt in Taiwan, where she comes to the realization that she can be both Chinese and American. Rich in language and imagery, Seeing Emily is a good choice for fiction collections.

In free verse, talented artist 16-year-old Emily Wu, describes her daily life in America as she struggles for independence from her Chinese immigrant parents. Only after spending the summer in Taipei learning Chinese does Emily connect with her heritage and realize she can be at home in both worlds.
--School Library Journal, December 15, 2005

VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates, February 2006, p. 494

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. In what ways does mama show a clear understanding of her daughter? Why does what she suggests to Emily annoy her daughter so?
  2. What does the self-portrait that Emily is working on symbolize with its dark-overtones?
  3. How does the mural project propel the relationship with Alex?
  4. Why is Nick attracted to Emily? What comment of his causes Emily to understand the problems with their relationship?
  5. In what ways are Nick and Alex different?
  6. How does the art work in the novel parallel the story?
  7. By the end of the novel, in what ways has Emily come to a better understanding of her parents and her culture? Why?

Related Websites:
Bridging the Cultrual Divide in Health Settings: The Essential Role of Cultural Broker Programs -

Asian-American Literature: History, Classroom Use, Bibliography & WWW Resources -

Chicago Public Library's Asian American Writers: A Selected List -

Seattle Public Library's Reading Across the Map: Asian American - Fiction

American Dragons: Twenty-five Asian American Voices by  Lawrency Yep (ed.), 1993
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, 2002
Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa, 2003
Finding My Voice by Marie G. Lee, 1992
First Crossing: Stories about Teen Immigrants by Donald R. Gallo (ed.), 2004
Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction About Learning to be American by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan (eds.), 1999
If You Come Softly
by Jacqueline Woodson, 1998 (2001 RITBA Nominee)
Join In: Multiethnic Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults
by Donald R. Gallo (ed.), 1993
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, 1989
The Kitchen God's Wife
by Amy Tan, 1991
Monsoon Season
by Mitali Perkins, 2004 (2007 RITBA Nominee)
An Ocean Apart, a World Away by Lensey Namoika, 2002
A Step from Heaven by An Na, 2001
Ties that Bind, Ties that Break by Lensey Namoika, 1999

About the Author:
Like Emily, Joyce Lee Wong has lived in Richmond and spent time in Taiwan, where she took Chinese classes and taught English. A graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, she has worked as a lawyer and teacher, and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. This is her first book.

| ©2004 - Rhode Island Teen Book Award Committee | Aaron Coutu, Chair