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The Jade Necklace

by Paul Yee, Grace Lin, illus.

The children in Paul Yee’s award-winning books are haunted by their pasts. Often forced by circumstances to emigrate from their beloved China, they feel “caught between two worlds” like Yee, a third-generation Chinese Canadian who grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown. They can’t begin to live fully and harmoniously in the New World until they make peace with their past.

So it is with The Jade Necklace, Yee’s latest picture book, a coming-of-age tale that’s both contemporary and timeless, realistic and symbolic. An eloquent blend of historical fiction, Chinese folklore, and mythology, Yee’s powerfully resonant tale is narrated in prose that seamlessly marries the formality of the storyteller’s voice with the intimacy of a child’s perspective.

The catalyst that sets the story in motion, as in many of Yee’s works, is the loss of a parent. As the tale opens, Yenyee, who adores her fisherman father, receives a jade necklace in the shape of a fish from him. During a typhoon, her father’s boat is lost at sea. Yenyee offers the ocean her precious necklace in exchange for her father’s life, but when he doesn’t return, she curses the sea. Soon her family is near starvation, and to help them, Yenyee sadly moves to Vancouver with a merchant and his young daughter as their servant. There, it takes another dramatic encounter with the ocean – the merchant’s daughter almost drowns but Yenyee saves her – before past and present are reconciled.

Using a rich, darkly hued palette that mirrors the tale’s stormy and sombre mood, Grace Lin’s illustrations range from expressive portraits that poignantly capture the characters’ melancholy and tumultuous emotions to action-packed scenes that evoke the dangerous beauty of the sea in Van Gogh-like swirls of textured brushstrokes.