A new year, a new chance to tell you about books you might love. Today, a set of three books that weave folktales and myths into the journeys of three children and their fellow travelers.
Writer-illustrator Grace Lin grew up in upstate New York, where she and her two sisters were the only Chinese children in her school. Living in this cultural desert was difficult, and Lin admits to having been ashamed of her ethnic heritage. Her mother gave her books of Chinese folktales to read, and it’s Lin’s retellings of those tales that shape these three companion novels. Embedded in the books are also tidbits of Chinese culture: food, beliefs, values, clothing, village and family life. It’s easy to see that Lin is finding a way to acknowledge what she disliked so much in her childhood, and why she, however reluctantly, accepts the title of “multicultural children’s book author and illustrator”.
In each novel, the heroine or hero must set out on a journey of discovery or rescue — find a stolen object, rescue a kidnapped storyteller, save a troubled village. Along the way, various characters tell stories — myths about unhappy dragons, lost princesses, stolen jade, talking fish, and Magistrate Tiger (a worthy villain). Gradually, as the stories piled up in my memory, I started to see how they built on each other, picking up threads and carrying them a bit further, until the end, where I found the separate threads joining in a satisfying resolution. Only in Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds (another novel based in Chinese culture) have I seen a similarly entwined structure of plot and internal tales.
As if Lin’s beautiful rendering of Chinese folktales and legends weren’t enough, the publisher (Little, Brown) includes Lin’s full-color illustrations, along with sepia-toned line drawings at the head of each chapter. These all are gorgeously produced, the full-color drawings rich with reds and blues, greens and gold. Readers will be inspired to head to their nearest museum with holdings in Chinese art — vases in particular, whose glazes and shapes are echoed in Lin’s illustrations.
These books are written for middle-grade (ages 8-12) readers, but anyone who loves stories packed with brave protagonists, magical steeds, wise elders, evil villains and stalwart companions (of both animal and human form) will enjoy them. (She also has a fabulous web-site, with links to interviews, games, activities, essays, and even a TEDx talk.) Happy reading!