Author: Ying Chang Compestine
Awards: California Book Award for Young Adult Literature * 2008 ALA Best Books For Young Adults * 2008 ALA Notable Children’s Books * 2007 Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Fiction Book List
It’s About: Nine-year-old Ling tells her personal story of growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China. Set in the city of Wuhan, along the banks of the Yangtze River, Ling describes events, people and emotions as she experiences them, and what starts out as a child’s innocent world with all things in their proper place quickly morphs into confusion, instability and loss. While Ling is no longer an innocent child by the time the story concludes, she never loses her personal determination and conviction to the principles she was taught.
I Thought: I was captivated by this story. Frequently, as adults, we forget how differently an event impacts, affects, or is perceived by a child, and this book was my personal reminder of that. I found myself wanting to give Ling’s mother some parenting advice (on multiple occasions) because Ling’s reactions, questions, comments or behavior were oftentimes a direct result of what she didn’t understand – and at no fault of her own.
I will tell you this is not an easy book to absorb. It’s difficult to willingly participate (as a reader) in the hardships of the characters, and this is especially true when perceived corruption, tyranny and outright cruelty are displayed. I cried more than once knowing this book is autobiographical and loosely based on actual events that took place during Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution. Opinions and sources differ on the actual number of intellectuals killed during this dark period in Chinese history, but the negative consequences (and there are many, but that’s probably a different conversation) of Mao’s senseless and selfish political campaign still linger today.
Verdict: While I say this book is tough, I mean that from my privileged upbringing in a home and in a country where I’ve never experienced true hardship, deprivation, or loss of freedoms. This book caused me to consider gratitude, political power, conflict, loss, freedom, socialism, communism, democracy, deprivation, intellectual purging, similarities between Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin, cultural impact, socio-economic impact, psychological impact, and the list goes on. Inspired by Ling’s story, I turned to my college textbook on Modern Chinese History, to the internet, and to a friend for additional insight on the events that transpired not many years’ past.
Read this one with your kids. Read this one on your own. Let this story be your catalyst for learning more about the actual events leading up to and during the Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966-1976, even though the author bends her dates a bit for some reason.
Reading Recommendation: Middle Grade Fiction – I loved the audio version of this book (less than five hours).