Chinese for Kids and It’s Your World: China by Carole Marsh

There aren’t many workbook-type social-studies resources available in the education marketplace to help teachers, homeschoolers, and family travelers introduce foreign cultures, especially those from Asia. I work in this industry and have been keeping my eyes open at tradeshows and when new catalogs arrive for such materials to use with my daughter, as well as to review for the weninchina community.

These 32-page workbooks are each from series published by Gallopade International, covering many countries (14 in that series) and languages (7 in that series). Each book is priced at a reasonable $5.95 and printed in black on good-quality paper. Both books are written for an older-elementary / middle-school reading level using a conversational (and perhaps overly excited) tone. (Source disclosure: I received both of these books at no charge from Gallopade at an education trade show.)

Chinese for Kids (copyright 2004) presents translated words in their context (greetings, food, and such) and uses matching exercises and fill-in-the-blank puzzles that progressively build vocabulary. The format of It’s Your World: China (copyright 2009) is to present new information at the top of each page and review / reinforce it with activities at the bottom such as crosswords, timelines, matching games, creative writing, or drawing.

With books about China like these, there are always several concerns: (1) the book can try to do too much (a comprehensive view of Chinese culture in 32 pages?); (2) the information can become out-of-date very quickly; (3) the pacing and difficulty level of the activities can be uneven … or too little / too much for a child to do.  All three of these issues are at play with these books.

With supplemental educational materials, the writing and editing staff need a clear understanding of the product’s intended use: will a child be using this book independently as a self-contained learning tool, or will a teacher / homeschool parent be using the book as an element in the context of a broader lesson plan that uses multiple materials? It’s unclear with these two books just what the intended instructional context is supposed to be.

As standalone books, there just isn’t enough content in either to be a complete social-studies of foreign-language teaching unit. For instance, the language book introduces Mandarin words but never explains how the language works, what the Pinyin sounds actually are, or how to make the all-important tones.  While the social-studies book has many interesting individual page activities, they jump from topic to topic so that the student never dives deeply into any particular issue. The writing style is breathless – using many exclamation points! – even in topics that perhaps need a more somber tone. While several pages talk about Communism and even the Cultural Revolution, there is no discussion of post-1980s reforms, how the country is actually governed today, the status of Hong Kong, or the “3 T’s which must not be discussed” (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square). For young children these topics aren’t critical, but for the middle-school age range these books are written for, these more-challenging critical-thinking topics are not just worthwhile but also the kind of content that they crave. China’s history is amazing, but what’s going on there today is also compelling, and more concrete for kids and teens to discuss.

I’m not able to recommend either title for homeschoolers or traveling families to use on its own – you would need substantially more supplemental materials so that you could introduce one page from these books at a time, in the context of other media, and that’s a tall order for families to coordinate. For educators, you also would need to carefully choose specific activities from these books to coordinate with other materials in your China lesson plans; these are not standalone resources.

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

I originally read this book when it was released in hardcover back in 2008, but seeing the softcover version on a display last weekend at Barnes & Noble triggered me to go back and revisit it. I remember liking the book the first time through; how would it hold up?

Troost - who’s been published in the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post - doesn’t want to be called a “travel writer”, as his other books about exotic locales were written after living for extended periods among regular citizens in places like Vanuatu and Eastern Europe. While ‘ethnography’ might be a more-appropriate word for his other two books, here this books’ entire premise is Maarten traveling from place to place in China over several months, having wacky adventures, and writing a small essay about it. That’s a travelogue, and because he visited a different city each week he just doesn’t achieve the depth of cultural understanding found in his other works.

I’m not knocking the approach; if a publishing company wanted to make me an offer like that I’d jump immediately. (I even have an itinerary sketched out, and essay outlines for all the other parts of But then again I’m not trying to write a humor book or a picture of a people in transition.

Now, having read through the book again, I’ll still say it’s a fast-paced, fun, light read. There are 24 chapters, but the tone Troost uses is dry and conversational and one could finish the whole book in less than a week of evenings after the kids have gone to bed.

Looking over the notes I took, however, gives me the idea to make a Chinese Travel Channel Special Bingo - Troost hits all the obligatory observations and statements you’ve seen in every documentary and guidebook. Here are my entries for Chapters 2 and 3:

  • Crazy driving / astonishing traffic
  • Children peeing in inappropriate places in public areas
  • Food made of animal bits we don’t eat in the West anymore
  • The Cultural Revolution was really evil
  • Blowing Noses
  • Crossing the street is dangerous
  • Chairman Mao
  • Crazy ads on TV
  • Luxury goods on ostentatious display
  • June 4 is a mystery for Generation Y
  • Smog in Beijing / dust storms

He circles all the way around the country, out through Shaanxi and Sichuan onto Tibet, then down through Yunnan to Guangzhou, up through the Yangtze Delta and finally into the northeast, ending with a boat ride along the Yalu River at the North Korean border, wishing to go back to the States.

I have to compare this book now to Kosher Chinese reviewed in an earlier entry. Both books are alternatingly funny and poignant, both are light reading, but Lost could have been Kosher if Troost had stayed put in one place for a couple months instead of taking the Grand Tour and hanging out with other Westerners. Take for instance how each author covers the gap between Han and non-Han ethnicities: Lost shows the absurd ‘surface’ of Han tourists in Yunnan having fun looking at Westerners interact with Bai people, whereas Kosher follows several young hill-tribe girls in Guiyang over two years, gets to know them and shows how the cards are stacked against them even though they keep trying. Both stories are true, but the latter one really helps you learn about what’s actually going on.

A book of just ‘surface’ observations can be fun, but too much at one place starts to feel like snarking, even though the author has only good intentions. Lost on Planet China is ultimately a highlight reel; a spice to add to your reading meal - entertaining in controlled doses, and with a balanced diet of other China media - but not a standalone dish.


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