For the past few Throwback Thursdays I’ve been reviewing a series of books put out by American Girl (yes, that’s the doll company) about a girl growing up in the 1970’s named Julie Albright. Since I was a young girl back in the 1970’s, I thought it would be fun to compare the books to my own memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I also figured that it could provide an idea for some light summer reading.

Having gone through all of the other Julie books, I’m now currently going through the Julie Mystery books. Last week I reviewed the first of those books, The Tangled Web.

The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter, originally published in 2010, was written by Kathryn Reiss, who also wrote The Tangled Web and who has written a number of stories for children and young adults. The illustrations were done by Jean-Paul Tibbles, who has illustrated many other American Girl books.

All of the Julie Mysteries follow the events in both the Central Series and the Best Friend book. The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter is the second Julie Mystery and it follows the events in The Tangled Web.

The one thing to keep in mind about the Julie books is that they were written for a target audience of girls between the ages 8-12. As a result there won’t be an in-depth look at certain controversial issues of the day.

Julie is hot on the trail of both the paper daughter and a doll thief.

Julie is hot on the trail of both the paper daughter and a doll thief.

Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 10-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1970’s San Francisco. Her parents are divorced so she spends most of her time living with her mother, who operates her store full of handcrafted items (some of which are made from repurposed and recycled clothes) called Gladrags, and her 16-year-old sister, Tracy, in a small apartment that’s located above her mother’s store. On most weekends she stays with her father, a commercial airline pilot, in the same home that the entire family lived in before the divorce.

During her visits with her father, she gets a chance to spend some quality time with her pet brown rabbit, Nutmeg (who can’t live with her because her mother’s apartment complex doesn’t allow pets), and play with her best friend who lives across the street, Ivy Ling. Nutmeg was generally written in previous books as living in Julie’s father’s home while Ivy comes over to care for the rabbit whenever Julie’s father is on one of his long plane flights. Except page 63 of The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter has described Nutmeg as now living with Ivy in her home. (The book doesn’t go into the challenges of keeping Nutmeg away from the Lings’ two cats Jasmine and Wonton.)

It’s now February, 1977 and the story begins with Julie and Tracy talking about the upcoming Valentine Disco that Tracy’s high school is putting on to benefit a shelter for homeless youths. Their mother calls them on the phone from her Gladrags shop asking the girls for their help because she’s swamped at the store. The girls walk down a flight of steps to reach the shop (remember, the shop is located right below their apartment) and their mother hands them a bag of clothes. Ivy’s grandmother has just delivered a few bags of clothes after she and her neighbors had gone through the annual clean-up of their homes in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration. The girls’ task is to go through the clothes, look for any rips and tears that needs repairing while also separating any red and pink clothes for the store’s Valentine’s Day display.

Julie goes through one jacket where she finds a tear in a pocket. She sticks her fingers into the tear where she discovers something inside that hole. She pulls the thing out of the hole and discovers a slip of old paper with Chinese writing on it. When she shows it to her mother, her mom suggests that she show it to Ivy since she and Tracy are going to visit their father this weekend and Ivy lives right across the street.

Meanwhile there is some major drama when Julie’s mom talks on the phone to her old childhood friend, Olivia Kaminsky. After the phone call ends, Mom drops this surprise on Julie and Tracy: After living in Virginia for a number of years while caring for her ailing father, Olivia has managed to get her father to move in with her brother. Taking advantage of the change in her situation, Olivia has decided to move to San Francisco and she needs a temporary place to stay while she’s looking for a new job and a new apartment. So Julie’s mom invites Olivia to stay with her and her daughters in their cramped apartment and, in return, Olivia would help out with the Gladrags shop part-time while she’s looking for full-time work. Of course both Julie and Tracy are less than thrilled with the idea that their tiny apartment will become even more cramped with the new arrival.

While packing her suitcase, Julie packs her doll Yue Yan, a Chinese doll that Ivy gave her for Christmas in 1975 (which was documented in the Central Series book Happy New Year, Julie). After Julie and Tracy’s father picks them up at the apartment, he decides to surprise them with a dinner at the Happy Panda, the Chinese restaurant that’s owned by Ivy’s grandfather, known as Gung Gung, and Ivy’s grandmother, known as Po Po. After they arrived at the Happy Panda they find that Ivy had also arrived with her family and the restaurant is busy that night because it is hosting a birthday party for the son of Ivy’s Chinese school teacher. Ivy tells Julie that her brother is part of that birthday party and he will spend the night at a slumber party after dinner while Ivy is going to spend the night with her grandparents, whose apartment is located right above the Happy Panda and she invites Julie to sleep over in the apartment as well since Gung Gung and Po Po said that it was okay. Julie gets permission from her father to sleep there but is told that she must return to his house once Ivy leaves for Chinese school the following morning.

During the dinner Julie takes out the slip of old paper with Chinese writing that she found earlier and gives it to Ivy for her to translate. Ivy translates it but is also confused by the writing because she said that the writing seems more like some kind of a list but it doesn’t make much sense. She shows both the original note and Ivy’s translated version to her Chinese teacher who compliments Ivy on her translating abilities. Ivy also notices that Po Po’s name is mentioned in this writing, which further confuses her. Mrs. Chan, Ivy’s teacher, tells Julie and Ivy that it sounds like a coaching note and they should show it to Po Po to find out what it’s about.

The girls wait until Po Po comes out of the kitchen and they show her the note. It turns out that it is a coaching note that was written for Po Po by Po Po’s mother. As she looks at the note, Po Po starts to recount her impoverished childhood in China living with just her mother in a small village while her father had immigrated to San Francisco a few years earlier in the hopes of becoming rich. When the father finally sends for his family to join him in America, Po Po, who was only 14 at the time, had to travel on her own due to her mother’s illness. Her mother gave her a coaching note that’s full of facts about her family, the home she grew up in, and the village where she came from so that Po Po could answer correctly whatever questions the immigration authorities will ask her once she arrived in America. At some point Po Po misplaced the note and she assumed that it had blown overboard instead of lodging itself inside of a hole in a jacket that Julie discovered many decades later. During her time on that ship Po Po met a girl her age named Mei Meng, whose family sent her to live with a new family who was paid to take her in as a paper daughter (meaning she was a daughter of the American family on paper only—otherwise she isn’t related to them at all). Like other recent Chinese immigrants, Po Po and Mei Meng had to spend weeks on Angel Island (which is the Northern California equivalent of Ellis Island) while waiting to see whether the two would be allowed to enter the U.S. or be deported back to China.

While reading that note, Po Po becomes confused about one of the instructions, which says that her best loved doll was a gift from her father and she sleeps with the doll. That’s because Po Po, at the age of 14, had stopped playing with dolls and the doll that she traveled with was given to her by a neighbor just a few days before her voyage. Eventually Po Po was interviewed by immigration officials and she managed to pass the interview and enter the country. Before she left Angel Island, Po Po gave the doll she traveled with to Mei Meng. Po Po was reunited with her father but she also learned that during her time on Angel Island, her mother passed away. She mentions that her father had asked her mother to bring a jade necklace with them that had been in his family for generations because he hoped to sell it in order to raise some cold hard cash. Po Po later recalls that she didn’t have the jade necklace with her and she assumed that her mother had planned on being the one to bring it once she felt well enough to travel but she died instead.

When the evening winds down, both Julie and Ivy head towards Gung Gung’s and Po Po’s apartment, where someone had already brought Julie’s suitcase, with her doll Yue Yan’s head sticking out from a side pocket, and where Ivy had already brought and stored her doll, Li Ming. When Julie, Ivy, and Ivy’s grandparents arrives upstairs, the grandparents immediately notices that something is amiss. The grandparents realize that there was a break-in while everyone else was at the Happy Panda downstairs and they call the police. Julie and Ivy quickly discover that their dolls are missing.

The girls spend the rest of the book searching for their stolen dolls while also trying to find a way of locating Mei Meng so she and Po Po could have a reunion. In the meantime there are also a few adults who seem to be on the same trail as Julie and Ivy while the two girls wonder why that is the case and whether this could cause any danger to them. The girls go on a journey of discovery throughout San Francisco as they visit Angel Island (which has since been turned into a park and historic site), search around the streets of Chinatown, and search through microfilm in the public library. If all that isn’t enough, Julie has to prepare for the arrival of her mom’s old friend, who will take over her bedroom while Julie has to sleep in Tracy’s bedroom.

The last chapter, Looking Back, focuses on the Chinese immigrant experience with a detailed look at the racism they faced, the passage of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Angel Island, and the immigration of paper sons and paper daughters.

Music Mentioned in This Book

The Bee Gees—The book didn’t mention a particular song other than Bee Gees’ music. So I found a video that’s a long medley of several of the band’s greatest hits.

Movies, Books, and Television Shows Mentioned

The Green Hornet

News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Feathered Hair
Five and Dime (also known as Five and Ten) Stores
Mirror Ball
Paper Sons and Paper Daughters
Station Wagon
White Rabbit Candy

My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:

The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter delves more into the racism that affected Chinese immigrants than the 1970’s era that the story takes place in. The only things that really screams “1970’s!” are the upcoming Valentine Disco dance at Tracy’s high school, the scene where Julie and Ivy look through microfilm in the public library, the scene where Julie rides in a station wagon, and the mention of a feathered haircut, a mirror ball, and The Bee Gees.

I can remember when, all through my high school years, nearly every dance was a disco dance complete with a mirrored disco ball. While I liked a few disco songs, the vast majority of the music was forgettable, which is why I can count on one hand the number of times I went to my high school dance in the entire four years that I attended high school.

And, yes, I can remember when The Bee Gees were the hottest musical acts around and their biggest hit “Stayin’ Alive” was overplayed on the radio. The soundtrack that the band worked on for the movie Saturday Night Fever is on many lists as being among the best selling soundtracks of all time (such as the one that’s on and on

As for microfilm, I definitely remember microfilm and its close cousin, the microfiche. I didn’t start looking up microfilm and microfiche until I was in college and it was mainly to do research on term papers for various classes. I remember when searching through reel after reel of microfilm was a total pain. After a while my eyes would glaze over from all the enlarged text of old newspapers and other publications. Younger people have no idea how they have it much easier to be able to go to a computer, tablet, or even smartphone and do a quick Google search in the privacy of their bedroom instead of having to walk/drive/take public transportation to the nearest library, search through index books for microfilm/microfiche for what you want to look for, then pick up the right microfilm/microfiche and run it through an enlarger while cranking the wheel hoping that you’ll find what you’re looking for. It was incredibly time consuming and one could expect to spend at least two hours looking through microfilm/microfiche in order to find a few items.

I also remember station wagons really well. My family never owned a station wagon but I’ve ridden in ones that were owned by parents of other kids in my neighborhood and I found them to be quite fun as a kid. I can remember when we kids could move around in the back of the station wagon to do things like play games or even talk, especially when the back seats were folded down and it was a smooth floor. (This was in the days before new laws were passed when everyone had to wear seat belts when riding. When I was a kid, only people sitting in the front seats were strongly encouraged to buckle up.)

The book does a great job at providing a lesson on the legacy of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not only racist but also classist as well since the U.S. wanted to keep out uneducated low-skill Asian workers. I can remember when my Social Studies classes in both middle school and high school mentioned that law but those classes only mentioned it briefly compared to the details the classes gave about the African American experience from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement. I think, in hindsight, there should have been a greater mention of the prejudice that was also experienced by other non-African American groups who weren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Here’s one example: One of my ancestors came from Ireland and the Irish in America were discriminated because most of them were Roman Catholic. Granted, the racism some groups experienced weren’t nearly as bad as what African Americans faced but, after reading The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter, I have the impression that the experiences of racism against Chinese immigrants in California were nearly similar to what African Americans living in the South faced under Jim Crow.

I never knew about the existence of paper sons and paper daughters until I read the book. It shows the desperation some families felt to escape the poverty in China by being willing to send their own children to live with total strangers in America, who were paid to pose as the children’s relatives, while knowing that it was highly unlikely they’ll ever see that child again and they may never learn what became of their child once he or she arrived in America. It also shows the desperation of people who were willing to flee the poverty of their homeland for a country that they know is hostile towards non-whites.

There weren’t a lot of Chinese Americans when I was growing up in Glen Burnie, Maryland (which is located just south of Baltimore). There was one girl in my high school who was of Chinese descent. There was a family that opened a Chinese restaurant near my neighborhood when I was in high school called the Fortune Cookie (which I found is still in business when I was visiting my mother during her recent hospital stay a few months ago). There was a Japanese girl whose family originally came from Okinawa and they lived in my neighborhood from about the time I was in the fourth grade until her family moved elsewhere after I was in the seventh grade. Most of the Asians in my area came from South Korea. There was a big influx of them who moved to Glen Burnie around the mid-1970’s. Some South Korean families moved to the United States because they were fleeing the repressive dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (who ruled that nation with an iron fist until his assassination in 1979) while others were simply looking for better education opportunities for their children than what they could get in the South Korean school system at that time.

While I enjoyed reading the previous Julie Mystery, The Tangled Web, I found that The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter was even better. Instead of dealing with a classmate who told lies in order to hide her real family situation, The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter was more action-packed as Julie and Ivy did a lot of exploring throughout Chinatown while trying to avoid certain adults whom they are suspicious of. There was also the history lesson about the legacy of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which weaved seamlessly and very effectively through the plot. While I quickly figured out the connection between the doll that Po Po brought with her from China and the lost jade necklace, the story was full of so many twists and turns that I didn’t figure out who was the real thief who stole Julie’s and Ivy’s dolls until the last chapter.

As I was reading that book, I kept on thinking that American Girl could easily make a historical character doll of a Chinese immigrant who had to stay for weeks on Angel Island and also document her struggles of learning a new language and homesickness while dealing with the racial prejudice against her. Such a story could be explored in more detail than what has been told as an add-on to the Julie books (Happy New Year, Julie, Good Luck, Ivy, and The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter). The girl could even be a paper daughter in order to make the story more dramatic. Think about it, instead of a 1970’s Chinese American who’s a best friend sidekick like Ivy Ling, there would be a girl who’s the main character of a storyline from somewhere between 1890-1940 about the Chinese immigrant experience that could be explored in even greater detail than what has been covered in the Julie books. Given the large population of Asians living in the United States, I think such a doll could be a modest hit at the very least.

Where to Buy The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter

American Girl
Barnes & Noble
Powell’s Books

The American Girl Julie Albright Books List

The Original Central Series

Meet Julie
Julie Tells Her Story
Happy New Year, Julie
Julie and the Eagles
Julie’s Journey
Changes for Julie

The Best Friend Book

Good Luck, Ivy

The Julie Mysteries

The Tangled Web
The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter
The Silver Guitar
Lost in the City
Message in a Bottle

The BeForever Books

The Big Break: A Julie Classic Volume 1—A compilation of the first three Julie Albright Central Series books (Meet Julie, Julie Tells Her Story, and Happy New Year, Julie).

Soaring High: A Julie Classic Volume 2—A compilation of the last three Julie Albright Central Series books (Julie and the Eagles, Julie’s Journey, and Changes for Julie).

A Brighter Tomorrow: My Journey with Julie

Other Media Featuring Julie

And the Tiara Goes to…—A film short based on the Julie books.