In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
Bette Bao Lord (Juvenile Fiction)
Bandit is confused. What would make Mother smirk, Grandmother cry, and Grandfather angry? The House of Wong is certainly unsettled, but why? Bandit quickly learns that her father will not be returning to Chungking. Instead, she and her mother will be going to him…to America. But Bandit isn’t worried because no bad luck will come her way. This is the year of the Boar and travel, adventure, and double happiness await her. Soon, Bandit will begin her journey from China to San Francisco to her eventual home in Brooklyn, New York. She will travel thousands of miles with a new name and new dreams. But will America be all that Bandit hopes it will be?
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is a charming and humorous story largely based on Bette Bao Lord’s own experiences as a newcomer to America. Bandit (who adopts an American name of Shirley Temple Wong) endures teasing, bullying, and rejection that often comes with simply being different. Despite her difficulties with fitting in, she is constantly reminded by her mother of the importance of maintaining your self-respect despite struggling through ridicule: “Always be worthy, my daughter, of your good fortune. Born to an illustrious clan from an ancient civilization of China, you now live in the land of plenty and opportunity. By your conduct show that you deserve to enjoy the best of both worlds.” Her mother’s words serve as a valuable reassurance to Bandit that her past life in China need not be forgotten or sacrificed for her present life in America. She is much richer for having both.
Despite her trials and torments, Bandit makes friends through America’s favorite pastime—baseball—and its formidable hero, Jackie Robinson and realizes that things are not always what they appear to be. On the day Bandit gains the unlikeliest of allies, she recalls something that her grandfather had told her many times: “Things are not what they seem. Good can be bad. Bad can be good. Sadness can be happiness. Joy, sorrow.” In the year of the Boar, Bandit discovers the pride in being yourself and the value of friends who accept you just the way you are. Double happiness.
* Book cover image attributed to www.harpercollins.com
Looking for Marco Polo
Alan Armstrong (Juvenile Fiction)
Mark Hearn’s father is a teacher of anthropology and about to embark on a trip to the Gobi Desert. Like Marco Polo, he wishes to meet and live with the desert people. Before leaving, he gives Mark a worn copy of The Travels of Marco Polo and says that he will be following the same route as the famous explorer. Mark receives frequent letters from his father, but when correspondence suddenly stops, he boards a plane to Venice with his mother in search of answers. Mark’s old paperback suddenly becomes a map, holding clues to his father’s possible whereabouts.
After Mark and his mother arrive in Venice, you can divide this book into two sections. The first we can call “Sightseeing in Venice” as the reader is provided several famous Venetian landmarks, as well as a few notable Polo sites (his former residence and the church he visited on feast days). The second half focuses on Polo’s time in China and could be called “My Many Conversations with Kublai Khan”. Here, the story drags a bit as Polo describes to Khan his multi-year journey. It also chronicles Polo’s travels throughout the Mongol Empire.
Armstrong describes his book as a work of fiction stating, “The spine of travel is somewhat as Marco described it, as are the ribs of the larger adventures. The rest is imagined, but possible…”. Although many parts of the book are indeed overly dramatized and romanticized, the main points are factual: Polo did travel through much of Asia with his father and uncle where they met Kublai Khan; Polo was imprisoned and dictated his story to a cellmate named Rustichello de Pisa; and Polo’s book did serve as inspiration to many later explorers, including Christopher Columbus.
If you mention Marco Polo to your child and the first thing that comes to mind is a pool game, then Armstrong’s book would be a good introduction to the man. Perhaps it might even inspire your young reader to find out more about this famous merchant, trader, and explorer. In the meantime…Marco! Polo!
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See (Adult Fiction)
Lily Yi was born on the fifth day of the sixth month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign. Her matchmaker took one look at her and knew she was special. In fact, Lily was so special that she was given a laotong, an “old same”, instead of the traditional sworn sisters that most girls receive. A laotong relationship in Chinese culture is between two girls from different villages who are eternally bound to be kindred sisters and devoted companions. At the age of seven, Lily is matched with a girl from the highly regarded Lu clan. Her name is Snow Flower. For over twenty years, their friendship endures arranged marriages, childbearing, disease, and death. Throughout these events, the two write to one another in a secret women’s language—nu shu—on the folds of a fan. One day, Lily receives a message from Snow Flower that threatens to tear apart their bond, although it is said that not even death itself can sever a laotong.
See not only gives us an extraordinary novel, but also an informative and unforgettable glimpse into Chinese culture and the lives of women in the early part of the 19th century. We read how women are kept separated and isolated from outside life. Women hidden away within the walls of their upstairs women’s chambers where they spend their days cooking, sewing, and praying for sons—their only measure of worth. See also describes the unimaginably cruel and painful practice of footbinding. This tradition begins with girls at age six and See’s description of the binding process is unmerciful in its details. The suffering these young girls endure is truly horrific and beyond human comprehension and through the author’s masterful storytelling, we find ourselves experiencing their pain and agony alongside them. (Thankfully, this practice was outlawed in 1912.)
See gives her readers a beautifully told story of devotion, sacrifice, regret, love, and forgiveness. Lily and Snow Flower are strong, intelligent, and fearless women willing to break long-honored cultural barriers in order to remain together. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a mesmerizing and heartbreaking novel whose story unfolds as effortlessly as the fan that Lily and Snow Flower share.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com