In my last column, I shared suggestions for non-fiction books about China. As I indicated in that column, it is important for children to have some understanding of China, particularly as it becomes our largest competitor. To really understand a country and its people, it's important to understand the culture, and that can often be learned best from the country's folktales and from fiction.
For Older Readers
I'll start with a few books for older readers. Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, tells of a boy and his mother who move from their farm into a city so the boy can be apprenticed to a brass maker. This takes place during the 1920s, a time of great change, and some of those changes are reflected in this excellent story of a young man growing in maturity and understanding.
Another good book is by Katherine Paterson, a writer who was born in China to missionary parents. Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom is a fictional story of the Taiping Rebellion, which occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. A boy is kidnapped from his farm home and rescued by someone from a "God-worshipping society" who turns out to be a girl in disguise. The story follows the two young people through a time of great unrest and war. This book could lead to some powerful conversations about faith and war, pride, and the power of mind-control.
The House of Sixty Fathers, by Meindert DeJong, is yet another story set in a time of change, during the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s. As Chinese peasants are attempting to escape from the Japanese, a boy gets separated from his parents and goes down the river with his pet pig. He rescues an American airman whose plane has gone down and becomes a sort of "mascot" at an air base.
The Taiwanese-American author Grace Lin writes beautiful stories that weave together traditional tales into longer fantasies. Two of her books are Starry River of the Sky and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Both are gems.
Going on to picture books, Children of the Yangtze River by Svend Otto S (the pseudonym of Danish illustrator Svend Otto Sørensen) is a lovely one. It is set in a rural village in modern China, near the Yangtze River. When the river floods, the villagers must work together to save their animals and other possessions, and then move to a higher location.
Barbara Ann Porte has written Ma Jiang and the Orange Ants, a story about a girl whose family makes its living by trapping and selling special ants that protect fruit trees from other insect pests. When the girl's father and two older brothers are conscripted into the emperor's army, she must find a way to trap the ants.
Demi Hitz's Lu Pan, the Carpenter's Apprentice, tells of a boy who is sent away from home to find a master carpenter. The boy is set many hard tasks and eventually grows to become a great artisan. This story is based on a real person who lived during the Chou Dynasty.
Ruby's Wish, by Shirin Yim Bridges, tells of a Chinese man who goes to "Gold Mountain," i.e., California, and comes back a rich man. He has many grandchildren, and one of them, a little girl, does not want to follow the usual pattern of stopping her education early and marrying. She convinces her grandfather that she should go to university.
Riki Levinson's Our Home Is the Sea tells of a Hong Kong boy who lives on a houseboat but goes to school in town. As he rides the bus home each day, he sees many sights and thinks about his own future.
Chen Jiang Hong's Little Eagle tells the story of an orphan boy growing up in the shadow of the Great Wall. He becomes the ward of a wise kung fu master and learns discipline.
A lovely tale is Basket Weaver and Catches Many Mice, by Janet Gill. A basket weaver loves to make baskets for babies and takes special care to individualize them. He is summoned by the emperor to make a basket for the royal baby, but when he realizes that he is in a competition with others and that if he does not win he will be sent to the mines, he despairs. But his cat helps him.
There are several tellings of the legend of the maiden warrior Hua Mu Lan. One is China's Bravest Girl, by Charlie Chin. To honor her father, the young Mu Lan goes to war disguised as a boy, and because of her bravery, comes back a general. Then she resumes her own identity.
Lily Toy Hong has written The Empress and the Silkworm, which tells the story of how silk was discovered. At the end of the book is information about how the secret was kept for 300 years. The Silk Princess, by Charles Santore (with his usual lush illustrations), tells the same story in a different way. A girl who is ignored by her emperor father notices that when a silkworm cocoon falls into her mother's tea, it unravels. She takes one end and goes through a series of adventures with the thread, leading to new discoveries—and recognition.
The Paper Dragon, by Marguerite Davol, is a beautiful story of a humble painter who fills scrolls with stories of the past. He loves the people around him, so when a dragon threatens them, he agrees to take on three challenges.
Another good story is The Empty Pot, by well-known children's author Demi. An emperor is seeking a worthy successor, and to help him find one, he challenges the young people in his domain to bring him the "best flower" from seeds he provides. Why does he choose the boy who brings an empty pot?
Finally, a cute story about the origin of the Chinese Zodiac is The Great Race by Dawn Casey. The Jade Emperor wants to make each year special, so he has the animals race across a river to see which one will represent the first year. Each animal uses its special skill in an attempt to be first. Who wins?
Counterparts to Western Tales
There are so many more tales, I can't begin to cover them all. But it is worth mentioning a few that are similar in some ways to European tales. For instance, Lon Po Po, by Ed Young, is a version of the Red Riding Hood story. Yeh-Shen, by Ai-Ling Louie, is a Cinderella story that predates the oldest European version. And Little Plum, also by Ed Young, is similar to Tom Thumb, with a tiny person doing things that a larger person couldn't do.
Children who read a variety of these stories will have a better understanding of Chinese culture. Parents and children who read them together may have some rich discussions about how people may understand the world differently, depending on their culture.
Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.
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