Laurence Yep’s remarkable career as a novelist has produced 60 books and two Newbery Awards spanning two decades — one in 1976 for Dragonwings and the second in 1994 for Dragon’s Gate. His recurring themes of self-discovery are explored through Chinese characters for a readership that extends beyond ethnic boundaries to encompass young adults around the world.
Laurence Yep was born on June 14, 1948 in San Francisco, the youngest child of Chinese American parents. Yep grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood. He recalls riding the bus every weekday to his bilingual school in Chinatown. This experience, Yep believes, fueled the fantasies that underlie his stories.
“In those books you have children from an ordinary world taken into another world where they have to learn strange new customs,” he explains. “Those books talked about adapting and that’s something I did every time I got on and off the bus.”
Yet his parents only spoke English at home. Yep felt a sense of alienation his entire life. “I was too American to fit into Chinatown, and too Chinese to fit in anywhere else.” Yep remembers serving as the “all-purpose Oriental” during war games with his neighborhood friends and being left out of private jokes told in Chinese at his school.
His family owned a local grocery store, La Conquista, where Yep “learned early on how to observe and listen to people. It was good training for a writer.” Yep used to watch his father work 14-16 hour days, seven days a week at the family’s corner store. “It sounds strange, but having that little corner grocery store taught [me] self-discipline. Whenever I start feeling tired at the computer, I remind myself how easy I have it.”
Throughout grade school Yep’s interest lay in the sciences, not the humanities. He was determined to become a chemist. It wasn’t until he attended a Catholic high school that Yep discovered his talent for writing. His English teacher, Father Becker, took him aside and told him that if he wanted an “A” he would have to get something accepted by a national magazine. Yep submitted his works only to get rejection after rejection. When Father Becker saw the rejection letters he relented and gave Yep the A’s anyway. But Yep persisted with his efforts at publication.
While attending Marquette University Yep made the decision to become a writer. He had been focused on writing stories for Look and Cosmopolitan without success. It was only after his first work was published that Yep understood his mistake. “I wasn’t really writing about what I knew.” Feeling “terribly homesick” at Marquette, Yep began writing about San Francisco — a San Francisco that had sunk under the ocean after an earthquake. Yep sold the story for a penny a word.
During his Marquette years Yep grew close to literary magazine editor Joanne Ryder. Ryder eventually took a position at Harper & Row and asked if Yep would write a book for children. The result was Yep’s first science fiction novel, Sweetwater. Yep and Ryder’s close friendship soon blossomed into romance.
Yep later graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz and earned his Ph.D in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Laurence Yep’s most notable works are a series called the Golden Mountain Chronicles which document the story of a fictional Chinese immigrant family from 1849 to 1995. This series included two that received the Newbery Honor. Additionally, his book Child of the Owl won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award in 1977 and The Rainbow People received the same award 12 years later. Yep was also awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 2005 for his contributions to children’s literature.
It took years for Yep’s work to provide a steady paycheck. “For years, my poor father worried about me,” Yep recalls. “He would go through the newspapers, looking through obituaries for dead English professors, so I could apply to those schools for jobs. He actually subscribed to about four or five newspapers, trying to find jobs for me.”
“It’s nice being a professional daydreamer, to be able to daydream and get paid for it,” Yep says of his comfortable life in Pacific Grove, California with wife Joanne Ryder.