In August 2018, acclaimed cellist and humanitarian, Yo-Yo Ma, set out on a global musical mission — The Bach Project — to perform Johann Sebastian Bach's six suites for solo cello in 36 different locations and demonstrate the power that music has to connect our divides and bind us as humans.
Almost a year later, when Joanna Ho, Peninsula author and vice principal at East Palo Alto Academy, read an article about Ma's performance in the border town of Laredo, Texas, she was immediately transported back to her youth and her memories of growing up in a large immigrant family.
"My mom loved Yo-Yo Ma, and she would blast his Bach solos on Saturday morning when my brother and I would try to sleep in," she said with a laugh.
The article also stirred thoughts of the author's connection to her single mother who taught her to build bridges, not walls. That "aha" moment was marked with the idea to write a book about Ma's concert, the musician's mission of unity and his childhood that inspired his activism. Ho's children's book, "Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma," is set for release on Sept. 28.
"I had an epiphany and wrote that book faster than any other book I've written. I had the core of it done in two days," Ho said, referring to the book's initial draft and her New York Times bestselling first title, "Eyes that Kiss in the Corners."
Ho grappled with and ultimately overcame her inner voice that told her that a story revolving around the southern border wasn't her story to tell.
"It was at the peak of child separation at the border, and I had been wrestling with the idea of writing a book about that experience. But I was conscious that that story is not particularly my story, so I was initially hesitant," she said. Instead, the author found a way to write it through her own lens, as the daughter of immigrants herself. "I was able to find a way to speak about what was happening at the border and still speak about the global dialogue surrounding immigration and refugees at borders."
The story begins on the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas where the musician plays Bach to a Mexican and American audience straddling each side of the river: "Feet planted on the soil of one nation, facing the shores of another." Readers learn about Ma's penchant for Bach at the age of 4, his French-Chinese-American lineage and his cherished instrument, Petunia, constructed from materials sourced from all over the world. It's a story about all of us, made from bits and pieces of the past, held together with notes and strings and bound by centuries of lessons and commonality.
Ho's writing is poetic and sparse — not a simple task for big topics like these. Successful picture books require precise distillation of words inspired from both world events and everyday wonders. It takes skill, meticulous editing and great finesse; and we can't overemphasize the impact picture books have on all readers and listeners.
"Picture books are so impactful. They can tackle complex issues and powerful emotions with only 400 words. The challenge is understanding that your audience is wide. A good picture book won't simplify a difficult topic, but approaches it in a way so that the message is layered. I'm always very conscious about my storyline and where I can build in layers, so that if you wanted to, you could go in and dissect the text in a high school or college-level course," Ho said. "This isn't just a story about immigration. It's a critique of colonization and land grabbing."
Teresa Martinez, who provides further insight into the text, created the new title's illustrations; and Ho said that, "Sometimes, less collaboration with an artist is better, because she provides her own layers to the narrative. It makes for a complex, rich story."
For Ho, who has built out educational curricula and has taught English to underserved communities, the practice of distillation of words and their message comes in handy at work. When Ho speaks about her drive and passion for education, she reflects, "I've always been focused on fighting inequity and disrupting systems of oppression, and I've always been drawn to teaching. When I finally put the two together and decided on my path, I went home and sobbed."
Ho's work at East Palo Alto Academy contributes to the charter school's goals of fostering inclusivity and changing the paradigm where one's outlook and trajectory isn't so predictable. Word is out that they have a New York Times bestselling author in their midst and staff and students are embracing both the craft of writing and the pleasure of reading.
"We have a teacher who's doing a unit where students have to create a picture book, and I had some students approach me, saying that they had seen my YouTube presentation and loved my first book," Ho said. "We've also overhauled our library and initiated a universal reading time where every day the whole school stops and reads for 20 minutes."
The school year just started, and Ho shared a recent encounter with a student and the idea of initiating a book club. "I had been excited to start a book club, thinking about it all summer and the books we would read. During club day a couple of weeks ago, I saw that a student who was not always happy to see me at school had set up her own booth and was starting a book club with her own list of great titles," she said. "And now I get to be the club's adviser! Students are so surprising in the most beautiful ways."
Like music, books too can build bridges.
Kepler's Literary Foundation in Menlo Park is hosting a virtual book talk with author Joanna Ho on Sept. 28. To RSVP for the event, go to keplers.org. Books will be available for pickup or delivery.
Sophia Markoulakis is a contributing writer for The Six Fifty, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.