Steve is an eight year old, Chinese American boy orphaned by a fire that killed both his parents. He goes to live with his stern immigrant grandfather and Uncle Fong in a tenement
in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Steve is convinced
that he is unwanted by his grandfather. When he goes home with a poor grade on an art assignment due to a defective brush,
he is too ashamed and afraid to tell his grandfather because he knows they can ill afford a new paintbrush. When Steve confesses his grade and begins to cry, grandfather surprisingly reassures him and pulls
out an old box full of mementos. He presents Steve with an intricately
carved paintbrush containing blue hairs from a unicorn’s tail.
Immediately life begins to change. Everything Steve paints comes to life
including a steak for Uncle Fong and a trip back in time to the old men's village of Dragonback, China. Grandfather, who never speaks of his deceased daughter
and his wife, wishes to visit the Lady on the Moon from an ancient Chinese legend. Wishes
can come true with a few brush strokes and suddenly there is the Lady on the Moon who looks surprisingly like grandmother. Steve wishes to see his parents again but when he paints their picture nothing happens
except a change comes over his grandfather. Looking at an old photograph he begins to open up and allow Steve to speak
and learn about his parents who were ballroom dancers.
Unfortunately, the greedy landlord, Mr. Pang,
gets wind of the magic paintbrush and decides to use it for his own benefit wishing for a mansion, gold, jade, and a banquet. But the paintbrush has its own agenda granting Mr. Pang’s wish and then making
him live with the consequences.
This humorous, whimsical, fantasy comes to life
with the help of black and white illustrations interspersed throughout the chapters.
The lifelike pictures depict a chinese window, clothing worn by modern Americans as well as Chinese clothing appropriate to
the past. The reader glimpses Uncle Fong’s Chinese village, the Lady on the Moon, and the many, often revolting,
dishes at Mr. Pang’s banquet. Yep weaves the spirit of magic and the contemporary
San Francisco Chinatown setting with lore and legend from China. Grandfather sets out to assist Steve in becoming aware of
his heritage and make him a “Chinatowner”. We learn
Chinese proverbs such as “praise the child, spoil the child” along with glimpses of life in a Chinese village
including a description of a machine powered by peddling a conveyor type apparatus that helps transport water to irrigate
of the grandfather/grandson relationship is strong as well as the relationship of the two old men who have maintained a friendship
since boyhood. As an Asian American, Yep is particularly sensitive and “always
pursuing the theme of alienation, a common feeling among all teenagers, whether native-born or not” (Meet the Authors). Steve discovers his grandfather along with his Chinese heritage.