WOW Review: Volume XVI, Issue 2

A man plays the cello on the grass, a small group of people holding hands behind him.Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma
Written by Joanna Ho
Illustrated by Teresa Martínez
Harper, 2021, 32 pp (unpaged)
ISBN: 978-0062994547

This picturebook biography is a beautiful testament to the vision and philosophy that has made Yo-Yo Ma one of the most beloved musicians of our time. Yo-Yo Ma, a world renowned cellist, has dedicated his career and life to using his cello and music as a bridge across cultural divides. This picturebook highlights one of the performances from the Bach Project, a two-year project aimed at increasing cultural connections and building understanding. During this project, Ma traveled across six continents and visited thirty-six communities. In each community Ma played J. S. Bach’s cello suites. The community featured in this picturebook is in San Antonio, Texas; however, his history with crossing cultures started much earlier. Born in Paris, France to Chinese parents, Yo-Yo Ma’s family immigrated to New York when Yo-Yo was seven years old. Yo-Yo began playing the cello at age 4. When he and his family moved to New York, he was already an accomplished cellist and, along with his sister, played before both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower at the age of 7.

The many ways that Yo-Yo Ma has worked to challenge musical and social conventions and bring unity are depicted in both words and pictures throughout this picturebook. Yo-Yo Ma’s career has spanned many decades. What distinguishes his career as a performing artist is his keen desire to inspire hope, understanding, and world peace through the use of music. Using the backdrop of the Bach Project and playing at the border, the book looks back on the many ways throughout his life that Yo-Yo Ma crossed borders and used his music to inspire unity. In 1998, Ma started the Silk Road Project, which brought together musicians from around the globe combining languages and various instruments for making music. Breaking down political barriers, this group continues to travel, inspiring peace and a spirit of collaboration around the world. In 2006, Ma was awarded the Messenger of Peace award by the United Nations, and in 2010 President Obama awarded Ma the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These are just a few of Ma’s life events presented poetically throughout this picturebook.

From the musical notes on the endpapers to Yo-Yo Ma playing his cello surrounded by people of many colors holding hands on the cover, the illustrations in Playing at the Border continue the cherished work of building bridges through music. Martinez’s illustrations have a beautiful fluidity connecting each page with the rhythm and flow of music. The theme of making connections and coming together across time, geographical locations, musical genres, cultures, and borders is gracefully captured on each page.

The back matter in the book provides biographical information on Yo-Yo Ma, more information about the Bach Project, and notes on Yo-Yo Ma’s special cello, named Petunia, which is made of parts from around the world. In her note, author Joanna Ho shares her connection to Yo-Yo Ma’s music, which her mother played every Saturday morning. As a child she cringed at listening to this music and only wanted to sleep. After learning about the Bach Project she saw the importance of Yo-Yo Ma and his work in recognizing the value and dignity of each person, especially those who have immigrated to a new place. She ends her note by writing, “Yo-Yo Ma builds bridges. Let us all build bridges, not walls.”

This book would pair well with other picturebooks inspiring transformative social change through art. The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art written by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Evan Turk (2021) tells the story of Ben Shahn, a Lithuanian immigrant whose paintings told the story of the struggles of immigrants, political protesters, civil rights activists and others seeking human rights and justice. Another book written by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Catia Chien (2023), On the Tip of a Wave: How Ai Weiwei’s Art Is Changing the Tide reveals how Ai Weiwei, a contemporary Chinese artist, became an activist and how he used the Life Jackets exhibit at Konzerthaus Berlin to draw global attention to the refugee crisis. Change Sings written by Amanda Gorman and illustrated by Loren Long (2021) would be a good book to bring this text set together and provide an invitation for the many ways that students can use their talents to make transformative change in the world.

Joanna Ho is the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan and China. She currently lives in the Bay area of California. She has written many books that convey her passion for affirming diversity, seeking equity, and standing against racism, including Eyes That Kiss in the Corners (with Dung Ho, 2021), Eyes that Speak to the Stars (with Dung Ho, 2022), Say My Name (with Khoa Le, 2023) and her most recent release, We Who Produce Pearls: An Anthem for Asia America (with Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, 2024).

Teresa Martínez spent her childhood in a small town north of Mexico and then moved to Monterrey, Mexico. Wanting to pursue art, she moved to Italy to study graphic design. She now lives in Puerto Vallarta where she works as a freelance illustrator. Other books illustrated by Teresa include Sing with Me: The Story of Selena Quintanilla (Diana López, 2021) and Duck Duck Taco Truck (Laura Lavoie, 2024).

Cynthia Ryman, California State University Monterey Bay

© 2023 by Cynthia Ryman

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WOW Review, Volume XVI, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work by Cynthia Ryman at

WOW review: reading across cultures
ISSN 2577-0527