Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Grace Lin has followed on to her Chinese fantasy-adventure novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon with a prequel, Starry River of the Sky, set about 150 years before the events in the first book and sharing some of the same characters, places, and artifacts.

Again, Grace writes children’s literature with unconventional structure and against conventional wisdom of how to tell stories to pre-teens. She devotes significant amounts of time to the actions and inner thoughts of adults; matter-of-factly shows behaviors like drunkenness, child abuse, and kidnapping; and demonstrates the psychological impacts those behaviors create. The story does not persist on negativity, however; the characters do what they think they need to do to move on (perhaps a good lesson for adults and children alike.)

Like the first book in this series, the key theme in Starry River is “running away.” Here, the main character, a boy named Rendi, has escaped his father’s tyranny. The family he encounters has suffered from its eldest brother running away, and the father running from his own feelings. The town he lands in has almost completely fled from environmental tragedy. Two mysterious travelers he befriends are far from their mythological roots, and even the moon itself has fled from the sky.

The structure of the two books are similar as well, as characters regularly pause in the action to tell stories of personal history and myth, in between events that happen in the story’s “real time.”

But in contrast to the first book, with all its characters in constant motion across vast distances, here the action stays mostly in one building (fittingly, a hotel), and all the characters have come to a stop in their travels.

And while Where the Mountain Meets the Moon incorporates elements of Chinese New Year folktales (defeating a supernatural child-eating beast, festivals involving an entire town, the yearning to go home to one’s family), Starry River of the Sky dives into tales of the Mid-Autumn Festival ( Earth having multiple suns which had to be destroyed, gathering to watch the moon, a pill of immortality).

At the end of both books, those who have run away decide to return to their homes, their hearts, their destinies. Starry River does not explicitly tell us what happens immediately afterward, but those characters’ later actions directly affect what happens in Mountain.

I wondered how my first-grader would handle the lack of “action” through the main part of the story, but I need not have worried: she was captivated with the well-paced character development and side stories. When the dramatic events finally come, it is the satisfying culmination of both what the characters have done in “real time” as well as through the long arc of mythology.  Like the earlier book, I’d say a third-grader would be able to handle most of this independently, and again it makes for great bedtime reading as the chapters are about 5 to 10 minutes long.

Do you need to have read Mountain to follow the events in Starry River? 

While it helps, each story can stand on its own. In fact, the books could even be read in opposite order without spoiling any surprises!

Do you need to be familiar with Chinese mythology to enjoy Starry River?

If you do know some of the stories and language, you’ll recognize some foreshadowing in character names and have fun comparing how the myths parallel what’s told in the book. However, Grace has given the gods some breathing room and a fresh interpretation. And in fact, for any given myth or historical person at any part of the year, you’ll find there are a number of folktales, some of which completely contradict each other!  

With this rich cast of characters’ families and well-imagined landscape of cities and countrysides, there’s plenty of room for several more books. My daughter is already asking if and when Grace will release the next volume! (She says to be looking for it in 2016!)


Standard blogging disclosure: we came across this book at our local bookstore and paid for it with our own funds.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin


We want clever, resilient, globally-savvy kids, right? Kids who use their initiative, practice compassion, and try to solve problems? Kids who honor their parents, seek knowledge, and earn others’ trust?

But what if your preteen daughter – motivated to improve your family’s dreary and difficult life – decides to strike out on her own, with no map or communications home, with no companion or protector?

Books for younger kids are “supposed” to show easily-classified motivations and actions, with just one ethical viewpoint and no moral ambiguity. Running away from a loving albeit poor family? Unheard of!

In classic “hero’s journey” tales, we never see the effects of the main character’s actions on those left behind. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is unusual for children’s literature in that so much of the book is focused on adult characters and their own internal challenges. And yes, there’s a lot of exposition, which ordinarily would turn a first-grader off. But here, it works, because the stories the characters tell each other are where much of the conflict and action takes place.

Also unlike typical kids’ stories, told in a straightforward this-happened-that-happened fashion, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon uses a deliberate narrative structure that parallels the main theme of the book: the characters’ stories and relationships weave a tapestry that adds insight and meaning the further you read – telling a story of the literal threads of destiny.

There’s also another parallel element at work to notice in the book, too: many characters are in some way “running away” – some from physical danger, some from uncomfortable emotions, some chasing a dream.  This movement – from place to place (across China) and time to time (over hundreds of years) – provides the framework where the characters’ stories come to life.

In a “hero’s journey,” the main character eventually completes a task and returns in triumph, and readers will not be disappointed with the hoped-for outcome of this story. And in the “returning” there’s an important lesson that many characters come to grasp: that while one can strive for something better, one must appreciate the elements that are good about the situation they are in right now.

Author Grace Lin (well-known and loved for her illustrated children’s books like Dim Sum for Everyone) draws from traditional character types and motifs of Chinese folktales – but this epic adventure is her own original story, set in an ancient China with great cities and vast stretches of unpopulated wilderness – where legendary creatures and supernatural beings have moved from everyday life into the realm of legend, but still exist for those who know where to look.

The chapters in this book are well-sized for bedtime reading (and easy to “read just one more” to your child without committing to another half-hour before lights-out.) My first-grader followed along with great interest and asked many insightful questions along the way – and a third-grader should be able to independently read most of the book. There are no Chinese characters or words used in the text, so it’s completely accessible to English-speakers. Even if you know nothing of Chinese legends you’ll still grasp everything that happens in the story.

Whether you’re new to Asian stories, or are well-versed in the films, anime, and novels based on old legends, this book is enjoyable for kids and adults alike.



Standard blogging disclosure: we came across this book at our local bookstore and paid for it with our own funds.

Chinese Folk Tales - Volume 1 adapted by Zhao Jie

Our daughter is now attending a Mandarin immersion school here in the Twin Cities, and each Friday is a library day. For this past week’s reading she chose this compilation of 8 short stories, printed in both Chinese characters and English. Published in 2005 in Beijing by Dolphin Press, this softbound book features full-color traditional illustrations on every page (which is why our sweet kindergartner chose it.)

These are legitimate and old folktales, although we aren’t told from when, what part of the country, or what religious/political order. They aren’t arranged with any particular theme or arc; each story is self-contained, and there’s no discussion by the translator or publisher to help non-native readers understand the context and “moral” of any story. Having read *some* Chinese history I can identify a few characters, but these stories just raise questions and leave me with nowhere to go to learn more.

The second issue is with the quality of the translation; this was clearly done in Beijing, in an academic setting, quickly, by someone (or a team of someones) who hadn’t spoken English conversationally with Westerners. The vocabulary swings from college-level to preschool-level without warning, phrases are awkwardly stuck together, and dialogue sounds like it came from the 1960’s. Characters are not clearly identified, and titles are not explained. Word choices are often dull: several stories refer to “devils” when we would use more-precise words to describe monsters, like demon, phantom, or satyr. Another story tries to explain how the Jade Emperor severely and negligently fouled setting up how the rain would fall, causing extreme flooding, but the words used literally make it sound as if he made a .03% accounting mistake.

The third issue with several stories is the almost random inclusion of implied or outright violence - political retribution, attempted assassination, and choking death. And let’s not forget the story of Yan Song, who basically prostituted his daughter to the Emperor’s court in order to gain political power (although that word isn’t used, the meaning is still there.) While I know Chinese society has adapted differently and is used to a different level of behavior - and that we can’t judge the past through today’s morals - the book is clearly intended for a Western audience.

Parents will need to pre-read each story before telling it with children - to use age-appropriate words, think up explanations and questions to get their child’s response, and to decide how they’ll phrase what goes on in certain scenes to still convey the main idea without getting dragged into explanations they don’t necessarily want to have at that time / age.

Was the book interesting? Yes, I learned more about a few New Year’s traditions, and heard a story about one of Taoism’s Eight Immortals that I found quite funny. But is this a book I’d recommend? No; for a casual read with kids, or to try to learn more about Chinese stories and customs, there’s just too much work for not enough insight.

Sara Jordan Publishing: Bilingual Songs: English - Mandarin Chinese Vol. 1

Sara Jordan Publishing is a Canadian educational materials company that has produced over 60 audio and book titles for early childhood; math, language, and social studies; and bilingual instruction. Their products are distributed through educational supply stores and catalogs, as well as directly from the publisher (both in CD form and digital download.)

Sara has dozens of titles available for teaching Spanish and French; this is her first entry into the Mandarin market. I had the opportunity to talk with her in 2009 at an educational tradeshow and purchased this CD from her (at a discount; regular price $17.95) to use informally with my daughter at home so that we can maintain some constant Mandarin exposure. For the past six weeks she’s had this disc playing at bedtime (so I’ve been listening to it quite a bit as well.)

There are 12 songs on the CD, plus instrumental versions of all 12. A songbook is included which shows lyrics in English, Pinyin, and Chinese logograms. Each of the songs are half-English-half-Mandarin; alternating either paragraph by paragraph, or line by line. The lyrics were written by a native Mandarin speaker and sung by native speakers as well. (And the English lyrics and singing are done with a mid-continent American accent - not a Canadian accent.) The songs introduce lots of basic vocabulary and phrases; titles include “The Alphabet,” “Counting to 10,” “Food,” and “Family.”

The music itself is not Chinese and does not use Chinese instrumentation; rather these are Western rhythms performed with instruments often used on children’s music (xylophones, drums, guitars, piano, etc.) and arranged in various peppy, energetic styles - feeling more like music of the Caribbean at times. Sometimes the music tracks overwhelm the vocals, but when you listen to the album frequently - as young kids want to do - you’ll pick up what’s being sung after a couple times through.

What does my daughter think? I have caught her humming some of the tunes during the day, and she is occasionally using Chinese number words. She does enjoy the music and wants to keep the CD on nightly rotation.

As a learning tool, running this CD as background music isn’t going to magically teach your child basic Mandarin vocabulary. This is really meant to be used with the songbook so that you or your child’s teacher can introduce specific words and phrases and reinforce them with the music. Likewise, your child isn’t going to learn anything specific about China or Chinese culture from this album - it’s a culture-neutral product used just to introduce and reinforce vocabulary.

I do recommend this disc; compared to CDs of “Chinese Children’s Music” produced in Asia, the arrangement of vocals and instruments, supporting information, and pleasantness of the music makes it much more suitable for beginning the teaching of Mandarin. The absence of military anthems and obscure poetic forms makes it much easier for kids in Western homes and classrooms to concentrate on learning the Mandarin words.


Posted September 3, 2011

Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy

Mike Levy was a language-arts teacher from Philadelphia suffering from a crisis of faith post-9/11. Wanting to use his talents toward a Big Global Purpose, he found himself in the Peace Corps in 2005 assigned to rural Guizhou Province teaching English at the university in Guiyang, getting paid the same subsistence wage and living in similar apartments as the local professors, and figuring out everything on his own with no outside support, for a two-year tour.

The 29 chapters go by quickly in a conversational and often funny tone, similar to a Bill Bryson or Sarah Vowell travelogue. Outside of a few weeks' training in Chengdu, Mike doesn't get to travel outside Guizhou, but that gives us readers the chance to really settle in and view an area that will never see a Hollywood film crew or breathless Travel Channel documentary.

As Mike gets to know his fellow teachers, his students, and other local kids, we get to hear the personal stories and decisions from real-life people with real-life ambitions, problems, and responsibilities. Should a professor put substantial money into buying an apartment, and can she find a mate when she makes more than most men? Will a talented and dedicated masters-student from Guiyang, knowing she has no career future in her home province, be able to find a future in the costal cities? What will the fates be of twin sisters, bright and hopeful and thirsty to learn, but born as ethnic minorities and living with their grandmother because their parents have migrated to the coast to find work?

Guanxi and party politics, ethnic contrasts and Chinese stereotypes of Westerners are all shown matter-of-fact, but the people are never shown as villains, just everyday folks doing what they've been taught or repeating something they've heard. It's a refreshing contrast to sensationalized mass-media China reports that never take time to have an authentic conversation with citizens, or who never leave Shanghai / Beijing / Hong Kong.

For those of us with children from China, this book strikes a powerful nerve as we can easily see our daughters and sons in the situations Mike relates. Would my daughter have faced a childhood of having to collect plastic bottles for the recycling money, or working in a back-alley kitchen, sleeping on a cot because home is too far to walk and she couldn't afford bus fare?

My little girl has an unbounded future. Reading this book reminded me of how much of an honor it is to be her father, and how much I owe it to the kids left behind to make sure she has the ability to pursue any dream.

Kosher Chinese is a 2011 release, available in softcover at a retail of US$15. Well worth a read for adoptive parents, for travelers heading inland, and anyone wanting a better understanding of everyday life in modern China.


Standard blogging disclosure: this book was paid for with our own funds.