Originally published 1.21.15 in “A Stone’s Throw” Column in the South Pasadena Review
Last Thursday, dancing lions roamed the streets of South Pasadena, winding through the farmer’s market, blinking lit-up eyes, flapping wiggly ears and ushering a crowd into the community room of the public library.
As the lively percussion band and lion dancers nestled down, the actual “Moy Moy” herself (“little sister” in a Cantonese dialect) settled-in to read Leo Politi’s picture book about a Chinese New Year celebration in L.A.’s Chinatown in the 1960s.
Politi, a children’s book author/illustrator and muralist, weaves a story of Moy Moy and her three big brothers (Harry, George and Frank) as they celebrate around their family’s shop.
Moy Moy longs for a beautiful doll, but will she get it? She will first have to overcome her fear of the lions that come to life as they roar to a stand, grow angry and happy, eat dangling fruit and donated money and even sleep and wake to the beat of drums.
As Moy Moy read, children absorbed the beloved story. Adults joined in from the chairs behind and under the backdrop of dozens of Politi’s art on display.
After a complete reading of the story, Moy Moy or Mary Yan Joe, a resident of South Pasadena and the main character of the book, shared briefly about its history and author. She then showed her own collection of Politi originals, given to her family by the author himself.
As an artist who celebrated friendship and cultural diversity, Politi created some 20 books for children, a Caldecott winner and two honors among them (one of the highest achievements for a children’s picture book.)
Joe recalled a memory of Politi and her childhood, “I just remember him coming and bringing his little dog that I was terrified of; he would try to get me to warm up to the dog. I was told that was how he captured that in the story, where I was afraid of the lion.”
Politi loved interacting with and creating art about children. This was evident even as the youngest son, Frank Yan, would climb on Politi’s back as he tried to paint. Yan remembered, “I was the rascal… I would just pester him.” A photo of young Yan climbing on a working Politi’s back was included in the exhibit.
Original dolls (like the one Moy Moy covets in the story) from Politi’s toy collection were also on display, juxtaposed to the illustrations that depicted them.
Politi had a special fondness for South Pasadena, painting his first library wall mural there. And South Pasadena loves Politi. Not only is a mural of children reading treasured in the children’s room of the library, but February 28 is proclaimed as the city’s official “Leo Politi Day.”
After the reading of “Moy Moy,” the evening’s line up was far from over.
Politi’s daughter, Suzanne Politi Bischof was on hand to represent the family and answer questions. Alan Cook, puppeteer, presented a fun and fascinating show of shadows illuminated like a makeshift television (sometimes called shadow play or shadow puppetry.) A detailed original sketch by Politi of Cook’s show in the past was also shared with the audience. Children created their own art at a craft table. And Ann Stalcup, who wrote “Leo Politi: Artist of the Angels” shared her book and more insight into Politi’s life.
The evening was a unique and fitting way to kick-off 2016 in South Pasadena and the Chinese New Year ahead (February 8).
Though the exhibit is no longer in the community room, you can still experience some of Politi’s books and his mural by visiting the South Pasadena Library.
Gong Hey Fat Choy! – Cantonese for “congratulations and be prosperous” in the New Year.
Thursday’s event was made possible by The Politi family, Lisa Boyd/Moms for Community, The City of South Pasadena, The South Pasadena Public Library, The Friends of the South Pasadena Library and many supportive volunteers.