In 1947, the Chinese year of the boar, a 10-year-old girl and her mother leave their home and extended family to join Father in America. The child, known as Bandit to her loved ones, chooses Shirley Temple as her American name. After a 10,000-mile journey by sea and train, Shirley Temple Wong and her mother reach their new home in Brooklyn, New York.
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Shirley struggles at first. She speaks little English and realizes her Chinese customs seem strange to her classmates. While Shirley’s family had servants and a larger home in China, the Wongs must now adjust to a small apartment where mother does the household chores. Her parents make her take piano lessons with the eccentric landlady, Senora Rodriguez.
Shirley tries to roller-skate and play ball like her classmates but still feels isolated. On the school playground, she accidentally collides with Mabel, the tallest, strongest girl in fifth grade. The girls exchange insults, and Mabel punches Shirley several times. Shirley refuses to rat on Mabel for giving her black eyes, even when Mother and Father drag Shirley to the police station. When Mabel realizes Shirley has not reported her, she becomes Shirley’s friend and advocate.
Mabel teaches Shirley the finer points of baseball and makes sure the other kids let her play. Shirley develops a love for the game and an obsession, like many of her classmates, with the Dodgers and the upcoming World Series. She becomes especially enamored with Jackie Robinson after her teacher explains how he has changed the game of baseball as its first African-American player. The teacher says that in America, anyone has the right to pursue a dream, regardless of race, religion or creed.
When Shirley finds Senora Rodriguez crying one day, she learns the woman misses her family. She can’t visit them in the old country because there’s no one to take care of the building. Shirley convinces her parents to take over the job for a while so Senora can visit her loved ones. Shirley’s father finds a lot of junk in the basement that he’s able to turn into treasures for various tenants. Shirley continues to listen to the radio whenever she can as the Dodgers battle the Yankees for the pennant.
Shirley befriends a new girl named Emily and enjoys spending time with Emily’s family. Shirley also gets a job baby-sitting triplets for a neighbor twice a week. She thinks it will be her opportunity to sit back and listen to baseball on the radio, but the boys prove to be a great deal of work. She is overwhelmed with love for her parents when they give her a piggy bank so she can start saving her baby-sitting money for college.
As the World Series heats up, Shirley spends time listening to the radio with her friends at the soda shop. All are deeply disappointed when the Yankees take the series in game seven. Shirley and her family feel sad when they realize they’ve forgotten to celebrate a holiday that was important to their family in China. They wrestle with the desire to hold on to their heritage while making a new life in America.
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Toward Christmastime, Shirley helps Emily get elected to represent the sixth grade. The teacher announces that Emily will get to present an honorary key to the school to the surprise Christmas assembly speaker, Jackie Robinson. Knowing Shirley is a huge fan, Emily asks the teacher if Shirley can present the key instead.
Shirley learns her mother is going to have a baby, and she can’t wait to teach him everything she knows. As Shirley gives Jackie Robinson the key at the assembly, she imagines the affirming eyes of her Chinese relatives are watching her. Jackie tells her maybe she will be president of the United States someday, and Shirley feels this is the year of double happiness.