Bestselling author Joanna Ho’s young adult novel examines the impact of suicide and racism on youth – Redwood City Pulse | FreniWorld

Palo Alto High alum’s new book, The Silence that Binds Us, sheds light on difficult issues

As high school students return to campus and fill halls and classrooms, the collateral damage from the pandemic and the isolation of distance learning is almost palpable: More than a third of high school students have reported experiencing worse off during the COVID-19 pandemic suffering from mental health, according to a CDC study.

Author Joanna Ho. Courtesy of HarperCollins.

Joanna Ho, a local author and former principal of East Palo Alto Academy High, knows quite a bit about the pressures of high school to perform and fit in. A Palo Alto High School graduate and daughter of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, Ho has navigated the minefield of achievement and assimilation throughout her life.

Although the best-selling author is known for writing children’s picture books (including Eyes that Kiss at the Corners, Eyes that Speak to the Stars, and Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma), in which When it comes to inclusion and the Asian-American representation, Ho was compelled to write her latest release, The Silence that Binds Us, after dating a few years ago.

“I was having dinner with co-workers and we were talking about the suicides that were taking place at local high schools. The man across from me accused Asian parents in the community of creating stress and pressure in the classroom,” says Ho. The sentiment was later echoed by a rideshare driver in the back seat of his car. She felt invisible on both occasions realizing these people were expressing silent racism that has continued since Asians first came to this country.

In 2017, Ho began her young adult manuscript before the COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and Stop AAPI Hate campaigns. Her protagonist, a high school student named Maybelline Chen, struggles with the aftermath of her brother Danny’s undiagnosed depression and suicide, inspired by the suicide rates that took place in Palo Alto between 2008-2009 and 2014-2015. According to the CDC and based on a preliminary 2016 study, Palo Alto has a teenage suicide rate that is more than four times the national average. Several of these suicides occurred on the Caltrain tracks near the high schools.

Suicide is the catalyst that drives the book’s overarching narrative – racism against Asian Americans.

“I wanted to write a book about anti-Asian racism. When I was writing the book, that was something nobody was talking about,” she says. Ho couldn’t help but include her own reactions to the deteriorating mental health of students and the mounting attacks on the Asian community during the novel’s revision process, but she emphasizes that much of the book predates those events.

“People say the book is timely, but Asian eradication and exclusion has always been there, and the reason no one has talked about it before is because it’s systemic and never taught,” she adds.

Ho makes room for Maybelline to share her relationship with her late brother, her parents urging her to remain silent and invisible, and her friendship with Tiya, a Haitian girl whose brother Marc is also grieving the loss of his best friend explore. “May is imperfect, and part of her plan has always been to explore her own ignorance and complicity with her own activism,” she says. “We are all on a journey, and we all make mistakes and have blind spots.”

The idea that one community’s success can make it harder for others isn’t new, and Ho addresses the Black-Asian trope in her book. She created a scene where Maybelline enlists the school’s Black Student Union for their help in a protest where she plans to fight Asian stereotypes and anti-Asian chatter online. On the scene, black students debate the myth of a model minority and challenge Maybelline for her lack of involvement in protests organized by black colleagues. Setting up a scene that cries out for exploration, Ho says, “My hope is to inspire and create more dialogue about Black and Asian racism.”

Maybelline’s organized protest, which she calls “Take Back the Narrative,” is successful in that it raises awareness of the silent racism that exists in the school and in society. It shines a light on the micro-moments when we’re all quick to judge and stereotype. Not all of the characters in The Silence that Binds Us evolve, but the main characters evolve, and they come together to celebrate a life lost far too soon.

Menlo Park Library is hosting a Suicide Prevention Month guest panel on Tuesday, September 27 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. entitled “Thrive in All Ages: Suicide Prevention Actions.” Visit the library’s website for more information.

Help is available

Any person who is feeling depressed, anxious, or suicidal can call 800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 888-628-9454. Dialing 988 also connects callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. Visit for more resources.

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