Yep has won several awards for his novels for young adults. His books often deal with alienation, drawing on his own experiences as an outsider. Yep was born and raised in a black neighborhood and educated in San Francisco's Chinatown, although he didn't speak Chinese. He didn't truly experience American culture until high school.
As a high school student Yep began writing science fiction. He published his first short story in a science fiction magazine at age 18, and his first novel, Sweetwater, at age 23. He is best known for Dragonwings, (1975) about a boy who leaves China to live with his father in San Francisco. The novel was selected as a 1976 Newbery Honor book and won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction. It remains one of the most acclaimed books in children's literature. His other works include Child of the Owl (1977), which also won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction, the fantasy tale The Imp That Ate My Homework (1998), and Dragon's Gate (1993), which was also named a Newbery Honor Book.
Yep graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1970 and earned his PhD in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1975.