Author: Laurence Yep

Original date and place of publication: 1975, United States

Original publisher: Harper and Row

Literary form: Novel


Dragonwings is a critically praised, Newberry Honor novel for young adults by Laurence Yep. Yep has written more than 20 books inspired by the Chinese-American immigrant experience and legends of Chinese folk tales. Dragonwings, about a boy who emigrates from China to San Francisco in 1905 to join the father he has never met, is a coming-of-age story and a celebration of the courage and industry of the Chinese-American community of the early 20th-century.

Eight-year-old Moon Shadow lives with his mother and grandmother in a small village in China. One day he receives a letter from his father, who immigrated years before to the Golden Mountain, or America, asking that Moon Shadow sail to San Francisco to join him. Upon Moon Shadow’s arrival in the Land of the Demons, as the people of his village refer to the United States, he meets his father. He is brought to the Company of the Peach Orchard Vow, the laundry that serves as the family headquarters in the neighborhood of the Tang people, San Francisco’s Chinatown.


He is soon exposed to the difficult living and working conditions of Chinese immigrants. Moon Shadow’s own grandfather had been lynched 30 years before by a mob of white demons. Now a brick shatters the laundry window as a racist mob of drunken white men roams through the neighborhood.

His father, who is called Windrider, was known in China as a master kitemaker. He shows Moon Shadow the electrical devices he has invented and recounts the story of how he received the name Windrider. In a former life the father was the greatest physician of all the dragons. His skill at kitemaking is only a remnant of his former powers.

As Moon Shadow grows to love and respect his father, he studies English and begins to learn the strange customs of the American people. After Windrider fights with a member of the criminal brotherhood in Chinatown and kills the man as he is about to shoot Moon Shadow, he and Moon Shadow must leave the Tang neighborhood. They move to rooms in the house of a landlady, Miss Whitlaw, on Polk Street, where Windrider has found work as a handyman.

Moon Shadow becomes friends with Miss Whitlaw’s niece, Robin, the first non-Chinese child he has ever met. With Robin’s help, Moon Shadow learns to read and write English. Moon Shadow and his father begin a correspondence with the Wright brothers on the mechanics of fl ying machines, and Windrider begins to build large glider models.

By 1906, Windrider is saving money, looking forward to opening his own fix-it shop and thinking of the day when he might be able to bring Moon Shadow’s mother over from China. One morning in April, a great earthquake shakes the city. Moon Shadow, his father, Miss Whitlaw, and Robin survive; Miss Whitlaw’s well-constructed house is the only one still standing on their street. When fires sweep the city, they fl ee by wagon to Golden Gate Park, then to the Oakland foothills, where they make a home in an abandoned barn.

Windrider dedicates his time and resources for the next three years to building Dragonwings, his fl ying machine. He makes a successful test flight, but the plane is destroyed and he is injured when it crash-lands. As his broken bones mend, Windrider and Moon Shadow rejoin the company, moving into its sturdy new building in San Francisco. Finally, Moon Shadow’s father sails for China to bring Moon Shadow’s mother to America.

Moon Shadow knows that many problems and challenges lie before him, but “I knew I could meet them,” he says, “with the same courage with which Father had pursued his dream of fl ight and then given it up, or the same courage with which Mother had faced the long separation from us.”


Dragonwings was inspired by historical accounts of Fung Joe Guey, a young Chinese man who improved upon the Wright brothers’ original airplane design and flew in the hills over Oakland on September 22, 1909, for 20 minutes before a mishap brought his biplane down.

In Dragonwings, the author wished to breathe life into the dry historical facts of the experience of Chinese immigrants. “At the same time,” Yep wrote, “it has been my aim to counter various stereotypes as presented in the media. . . . I wanted to show that Chinese-Americans are human beings upon whom Americea has had a unique effect.”

Because the novel is written from the point of view of a recently arrived boy, Moon Shadow refers to write Americans as “demons.” The Tang word for demon can mean many kinds of supernatural beings, Moon Shadow explains. “A demon can be the ghost of a dead person, but he can also be a supernatural creature, who can use his great powers for good as well as for evil, just like the dragons.”

Such allusions to the customs and beliefs of the Chinese immigrants portrayed in Dragonwings led to an attempt to ban the book in May 1992. Sylvia Hall, a Pentecostal minister, approached the Apollo-Ridge School Board in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, to ask that Dragonwings be removed from the eighth-grade curriculum. She objected to the use of the word demon in the book, references to reincarnation and other allusions to Eastern religion and what she described as content relating to the occult and satanism.

When the school board rejected Hall’s request to ban the book by a vote of 9-0, she took her case to court, asking for an injunction prohibiting the use of the book. She told the court, “There may be children who will commit suicide because they think they can be reincarnated as something or someone else.”

Hall contended the reading of the book in a public school violated the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion. Dragonwings, she argued, advanced the religion and beliefs of Taoism and reincarnation. It also promoted the religion of secular humanism by implying that people can achieve their goals without God’s intervention.

In a September 15, 1992, ruling, Armstrong Country judge Joseph Nickleach denied the request to ban the book. In his opinion, Nickleach wrote: “The fact that religions and religious concepts are mentioned in school does not automatically constitute a violation of the establishment clause.” He stipulated that the book was used for a purely secular purpose and that neither the book nor the teachers who taught it promoted a particular religion as the only correct belief or even the preferred belief. He found that the complainant failed to sustain her burden of proof that Apollo-Ridge School District violated the U.S. Constitution by assigning the book to be read in school.


American Library Association. Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, 42, no. 1 (January

1993): 18.

Yep, Laurence. Dragonwings. Afterword by Laurence Yep. New York: Scholastic,