El Chino

Written & Illustrated by: Allen Say

For ages: 4-9 years

Language: English, minor Spanish. 

Topics Covered: Chinese Culture, Spanish Culture, Self-Acceptance, Family, Trailblazer, Historical Figure, Bullfighting.  

Summary: This book is written in first person, and begins by describing a boy named Billy’s family.  His parents came from China to Arizona, and had six children.  Billy’s father always told his children they could be whatever they wanted in America, so Billy and his siblings all studied something different.  Billy really wanted to be a professional basketball player, but he was too short.  His siblings teased him for being so small, so he studied engineering in college.  Billy got a job as a highway engineer, but still dreamed of his days playing basketball.  For his first vacation, Billy took a trip to Europe.  In Spain, Billy saw his first bullfight (death of bull mentioned here).  He becomes enamored with the sport, especially the fact that the bullfighter was even shorter than him!  The next day, he got a room in a boarding house and asked the landlady where the nearest bullfighting school was.  Billy’s new landlady tells him only true Spaniards can be matadors, but he is not deterred.  Billy sends a telegram to his mother, saying he’s not coming home.  He joins a matador school, and is a good athlete but judged for not being Spanish.  Billy and his classmates try to get hired by bull ranchers in the spring, but he has no luck.  No one will hire him because he is Chinese, and Billy feels hopeless.  Billy has an epiphany that of course he’s not Spanish, he’s Chinese.  Billy realizes that in order to truly embrace this new lifestyle, he must embrace his heritage. He buys some traditional Chinese clothing, and feeling strong, goes to look for matador work again.  Suddenly, Billy is getting attention everywhere!  People start calling him El Chino, and he finally gets a chance to face a live bull.  Scared, Billy begins to fight the bull.  He makes the bull charge three times, and then walks away with his back to the bull like he had seen real matadors do.  Billy passed the test, and the next morning gets hired as a matador!  El Chino becomes the first Chinese matador ever, and is finally glad that he wasn’t born any taller.

This book is a fairly quick read, although on one page it does mention that the bull dies during the first bullfight that Billy sees.  Overall, it goes through the process of becoming a matador and the appreciation of Chinese heritage that Billy goes through in order to realize his true role within the matador community.  A short and easy to read biography about relatively unknown figure in both Chinese and Spanish history!

Reflection Questions:

  • How do you think Billy feels when he isn’t able to achieve his dream of playing basketball in college?
  • What is something you have really wanted to do that turned out to be disappointing when it didn’t happen the way you anticipated?
  • How do you think Billy felt when he finally embraced his Chinese heritage in conjunction with his dreams to become a matador?
  • What is a dream that you have?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • Bullfighting has changed a lot over the years.  Learn about different practices, and what is different between older and modern bullfighting.
  • El Chino was the first Chinese bullfighter, but who were some other famous non-Spanish matadors?  Is bullfighting more diverse now than it was years ago?
  • Matadors are known for their fancy outfits.  Design your own matador outfit!

About the Author & Illustrator:

Allen_Say_at_16th_international_literature_festival_berlin_on_September_12,_2016Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1937. His father, a Korean orphan raised by a British family in Shanghai, and his mother, a Japanese American born in Oakland, California, divorced when Say was eight. The family separated, Say living unhappily with his father and his sister living with their mother. When Allen was twelve, he was enrolled in Aoyama Gakuin in Tokyo and sent to live with his maternal grandmother. Since his relationship with his grandmother was no better than that with his father, the two negotiated an agreement that Say would live by himself in an apartment closer to the school. During this time, Say apprenticed himself to Noro Shinpei, a cartoonist whom he greatly admired. This period marked the beginning of his serious training in the arts and was to prove pivotal in Say’s life, as documented in his words in The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice.

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