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.
(There’s also now a “prequel”, Starry River of the Sky, which we’ve also just read and enjoyed - review to come!)
Standard blogging disclosure: we came across this book at our local bookstore and paid for it with our own funds.
For other reviews of books, media, and products about Chinese and East Asian culture and travel, visit our Reviews section of weninchina.com.