Review: The Only Child by Guojing

The Only Child by Guojing

The Only Child by Guojing (InfoSoup)

Based on the author’s childhood growing up in China, this is the haunting story of a child left alone at home who decides to take the bus to her grandmother’s house. But when she gets off the bus, she discovers that she is alone in a woods. She sees a stag in the woods and follows him until they reach a body of water. When the little girl slips into the deep water, the stag offers one of his antlers to rescue her and the two travel on together. Out further in the water, there is a light in the clouds and the clouds form stairs for them to climb. They enter a cloud world, filled with other creatures. Although the little girl is having fun, she does miss her family who are frantically searching for her back on earth. But how is she going to ever get back to them from high above in the clouds?

The author’s note that begins this book is crucial to understanding the story. A generation of single children in China led to them living profoundly lonely lives, sometimes left alone at home for the day. That loneliness seeps through every page here, even the joyous ones ache with it. This mash up of a wordless picture book and a graphic novel is exceedingly successful, offering a glimpse into a magical world of animals and clouds that show this small child the love and attention she is seeking at home. This story is hauntingly told with a magnificent heart that shines on each page.

The artwork here is soft and subtle, exuding a warmth even in the falling snow. The pencil drawings are detailed and lush. Guojing plays with light and dark, hope and loneliness throughout the book. The child is central in the book, shining on the page alongside her animal companions. The world of clouds is beautifully textural and playful, hugging the child and supporting her. This art is exceptional and communicates far more than words could.

A ravishingly gorgeous book, this graphic novel will be adored by a wide range of ages. Appropriate for ages 5-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.

Review: Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

red butterfly

Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

Kara was abandoned as an infant and taken in by an American woman living in China. Her Mama never leaves the apartment they share and Kara doesn’t attend school. Kara does get to leave the apartment each day to run errands on her bicycle, her favorite time of day. In China where the one-child limit is in effect, parents leave infants who have physical challenges like Kara who was born with one hand with only two small fingers on it. Mama longs to return to the United States, but she can’t without abandoning Kara, who has no identification papers and has not been formally adopted. When Mama’s American daughter comes to visit, Kara finds their entire lives turned upside down and their secret exposed. Will Kara be able to bring their family back together again?

Told in lovely rich verse, this novel is elegantly written and conceived. It shows the results of the one-child policy in China and the children who were abandoned because of it. Yet it is far from a condemnation of China or the United States. It is a portrait in contrasts and complexity, showing that there is good and bad in both systems. It is also the story of one very strong young girl who has already lost one family and is determined not to lose another.

Kara is the voice of the book with the poems told from her point of view. She is unique in many ways, including being able to speak English better than she Chinese due to her upbringing. Kara’s disability is handled in a matter-of-fact way for the reader. While she is profoundly ashamed of it, her hand and disability do not label her at all in the novel. Kara’s situation is complicated by the politics of adoption and identity. In her journey to a resolution of where she will live, there are episodes in an orphanage and then later in a home in the United States. These are all deftly and clearly drawn, showing both the universal nature of family and love but also the differences in cultures.

Radiant verse and a very strong young protagonist make this verse novel a treat to read. The unusual subject matter of an older orphan from China makes it a unique read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books.

Review: A Single Pebble by Bonnie Christensen

single pebble

A Single Pebble by Bonnie Christensen

Mei wished that she could travel to the market with her father, but she had to stay behind and care for their silk worms.  So Mei gave her father a jade pebble to take along and give to a child at the end of the Silk Road.  Though her father was only traveling part of the road, Mei was sure that her pebble could go all the way to the end.  Mei’s father gave the pebble to a traveling monk who was heading further west on the road.  The monk in turn gave the pebble and his flute to a young man who was going even farther west.  And so the pebble headed west from hand to hand and other objects joined it in a collection from “a girl in the land where the sun rises.”  Finally, after many hands and many people had cared for the pebble, it reached the hands of a young pirate who returned home to his family.  His son in Italy received that pebble at the same time that Mei got a piece of blue glass that their city in Italy specialized in.

Set in the 9th century, this book pays homage to the various peoples and communities, nationalities and religions along the Silk Road.  Readers will get a great sense of the length of this trading route thanks to Christensen’s story that makes it very concrete and connected.  The book also celebrates a good story, where the gifts multiply and all because the story surrounding them becomes more and more compelling as the pebble moves farther from home. 

Christensen’s art changes throughout the book.  The early pages are softened by the watercolor river and hazy trees in the backgrounds.  Moving further into the book, the images become more crisp and clear as the desert takes over the story.  The softness returns in Italy again with a different light than the one in China.  It is all delicately done and evokes both a connection between the two places but also real differences too.

A rousing journey of a book, this story is a celebration of the Silk Road.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

Review: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

boxers saints

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

These two incredible graphic novels tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1898.  Boxers is told from the point of view of Little Bao, a young villager who has seen the foreign missionaries and soldiers take the ancient Chinese gods and beliefs and smash them apart.  Trained in kung fu by a wandering man and also introduced to a ritual to bring the ancient gods to life, Little Bao becomes the leader of a band of commoners who become instrumental in the rebellion.  Saints looks at the other side of the rebellion and is the story of Four-Girl, a daughter not even given a real name by her family.  She finds a place for herself in Christianity, at first only attending the teachings because of the cookies but eventually finding a new name and new identity as Vibiana.  Her faith makes her a target and both Vibiana and Little Bao have to find the extent of their beliefs and what they are willing to sacrifice for them.  There are no easy answers here, no right and wrong, there are only choices in the middle of violence.

Yang has created two books that must be read together to get a full picture of the history.  Both books are one-sided, showing only the point of view of the rebels or the Christians.  At the same time, they are both balanced against one another, showing the violence on both sides, the hubris, and the faith.  They also both capture a young individual caught up in history and questioning their own choices.

As always, Yang has written a compelling book.  His art is strong and his story arcs are well developed.  I found Boxers to be the more interesting of the two with the Chinese gods and the question of being in control of that amount of violence.  Saints to me is a necessary foil to Boxers but lacks its depth.  That said, Boxers is one of the more compelling graphic novels I have read for tweens, so Saints had a lot to live up to. 

Highly recommended, this graphic novel duo has a place in every library collection.  Its violence and questions about faith, duty and responsibility make it a good choice for teens and tweens.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from digital galleys received from NetGalley and First Second.

Review: Jasper’s Story by Jill Robinson

jaspers story

Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears by Jill Robinson and Marc Bekoff, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen

Held captive for years by bear “farmers” who kept him in a too-small cage and harvested bile from his body, Jasper’s story is representative of many captive moon bears.   Now Jasper has been rescued by Animals Asia, an animal welfare organization.  He is taken to their Moon Bear Rescue Center where his medical needs are attended to and he is put into the sanctuary.  There, Jasper walks on grass for the first time in his life.  Caregivers work to teach Jasper how to find food on his own, hiding food in toys and places to dig.  In time, Jasper’s life starts to change.  He begins to play more, get stronger, and make friends.  Jasper is one success story among many, a testament to what rescue can do to save animals that might have been considered too damaged to rescue.

Robinson and Bekoff write in a very engaging way in this nonfiction picture book.  They invest time in telling the story of the abuse as well as painting a beautiful picture of moon bears in the wild: “Far away in the mist-covered mountains of China, the moon sends yellow arcs of light across the hills, softly painting the forests with a luminous glow.”  They describe the way that wild animals sleep with a sense of freedom.  The prose is beautiful, clearly painting the value of these animals and the importance of their rescue and rehabilitation.

The illustrations are equally evocative.  The paintings have a wonderful sense of place, showing the workers at the sanctuary and the horror of the small cages with equal attention.  I particularly like the way that the opening image relates to that at the end, showing that Jasper is once again more like the wild moon bears than the abused ones. 

A great book on the importance of animal rehabilitation and rescue, this book will speak volumes to every child who picks it up and meets Jasper.  Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look

brush of the gods

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look and Meilo So

This is a picture book biography of Wu Daozi from the T’ang Dynasty, who is considered China’s greatest painter.  As a child, Daozi is taught calligraphy, but his brush does not want to just create Chinese characters.  Instead, he creates the first stroke and then turns it into an animal like a fish or a horse.  Daozi began to paint on walls, painting so fast that his sleeves opened like wings, gaining him the nickname of Flying Sleeves.  He painted every day and people began to leave coins for him that he donated to feed the poor.  As time passed, his skills grew even greater until the creatures he drew and painted became alive and left the flat surface of the walls.  He was then commissioned to paint an entire wall for the emperor, a project that took him many years.  In the end though, he created an entire world on a wall, one that you could almost walk right into.

Beautifully told and illustrated, this picture book biography takes a playful tone right from the beginning.  The sense that Daozi was not in control of his own gift makes for a wonderful insight into the drive and talent of artists and the way their talents can control them.  It is also a tribute to the skills gained by doing what you love and practicing a tremendous amount.  Daozi’s work and its lifelike quality is captured through a magical transformation to life in the story, making this feel much more like folklore than a biography.

Look’s text will work best for elementary-aged children, as she tells the story of hard work and talent combined into something spectacular.  They will also be more likely to understand the juxtaposition of biography and magical realism that is in the book.  Her writing is clear and lingers in all of the right moments and moves quickly when those moments are right too.  So’s illustrations are a tribute to Chinese art.  Done with clear brushstrokes, they also have fine details and small touches that make them shine.

This is a very impressive biography of an incredible artist that few children will be aware of before reading this book, making it perfect to share with children in art classes.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House via Edelweiss.

Review: Red Kite, Blue Kite by Ji-li Jiang

red kite blue kite

Red Kite, Blue Kite by Ji-li Jiang, illustrated by Greg Ruth

Based on the true story of a family friend, this book tells the story of a father and son separated during the Cultural Revolution in China.  Tai Shan and his father, Baba, loved to fly kites together from the roof of their home in their crowded city.  Then bad times come and the schools are closed.  Baba is sent to a labor camp and Tai Shan is sent to life in a small village with Granny Wang.  Both Tai Shan and his father continue to fly their kites, using them as a signal to one another and a way to maintain contact.  Eventually, Baba is taken further away to another labor camp where they cannot communicate with kites.  All that can be done is to wait until Baba is free again and their kites can soar together once more.

This picture book will be best understood by older children.  There is no need to have a background in Chinese history to understand this book because the story is so universal.  The use of kites as imagery of freedom and connection works particularly well, especially in the ending which is particularly uplifting after the tension and sorrow of the rest of the tale.  Jiang writes in prose that is filled with the emotion of the time.  He writes with deep compassion and doesn’t shy away from the pain that fills Tai Shan’s days separated from his father.

Ruth’s illustrations capture the mood of the story very effectively.  He moves from bright golds and oranges in the city to the dull colors of khaki and earth when the two are separated.  The color scheme is only alleviated by the pop of color from their kites.  When the two are together again, the color begins to return to the landscape.

This is a striking and universal look at families that are torn apart by war and the haunted time they spend apart.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Little White Duck by Na Liu

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Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu, illustrated by Andres Vera Martinez

This graphic novel takes a look at the changes in China during the 1970s through the eyes of a young girl.  Da Qin lives in Wahun with her family, including a younger sister.  The book opens with the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 and shows a way of life that was disappearing.  In eight chapters, Liu reveals this transitional and fleeting time in China through experiences in her own childhood.  Along with the main character, readers get to celebrate New Year, capture pests, learn the value of rice, and visit a rural Chinese village.  Throughout, it is a remarkable view into a closed society that is just starting to open itself to the outside.

Liu writes her stories with a wonderful frankness about the playfulness of childhood filled with dreams of riding on cranes, but also tied down to the earth by the everyday nature of the tales.  There is a focus on the small moments of life in China.  Some are amazing to those of us who didn’t live them, like everyone participating in catching the four pests by bringing in a certain number of rat tails. 

Martinez’s art is a study in sepia toned memories made brilliant by the colors of childhood.  Against a gray background, the bright dragon dances at New Year’s.  Orange and yellow flames cook green and brown food.  And even after the drab poverty of the rural village, there are dreams of flying on a crane high in the sky.

Informative and remarkable, this graphic novel takes a fresh and frank look at a childhood in China.  Appropriate for ages 8-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The House Baba Built by Ed Young

house baba built

The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young

Illustrator Ed Young grew up in Shanghai during World War II.  His father managed to get them a house that was safe because he built it himself.  He made a deal with the landowner that he would build a house and after 20 years, the landowner would get it free and clear.  But in those 20 years, Ed Young’s family lived there.  It was a huge home with a swimming pool, space to roller skate on the roof, staircases to slide down, and lots of other places to play.  This is the story of growing up in that house with the war raging around them, but also feeling very safe as a family because of the house.  It is the story of welcoming people beyond their family to stay with them, giving refuge and forming a larger family unit.  It is the story of years of playfulness and joy together despite the outside forces because his father thought brilliantly and quickly.

It will come as no surprise to those who know Young’s work that this is a beautifully designed book.  Young weaves together paper cutting, sketches, painting and photographs into a dreamlike world of his childhood where some things stand out crystal clear and others are fogged by time.  It is like looking into someone else’s memories along with them.  They are beautiful and mesmerizing.

This book may have trouble finding an audience.  While the illustrations are gorgeous, the story is told in vignettes rather than one large story.  This technique will resonate more with slightly older readers than usual picture book preschoolers.  On the other hand, teachers looking for a book to inspire telling a biography in more than words will delight in this book.  It will share aloud well and the illustrations will invite readers into Young’s world.

A book for older elementary school readers who may take some encouragement to pick it up.  Once they do, they will be transported to Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s.  Pair this with Drawing from Memory by Allen Say for two artist’s childhoods in Asia.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from ARC received from Little, Brown.