When an author wants to write their first fantasy novel for children, they’ll sometimes fall back on the books they themselves loved as kids. If they were Alice in Wonderland fans they might go the route of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. If they were partial to The Wizard of Oz they could do as Salman Rushdie did when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories. As Grace Lin explains in her Author’s Note to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, some of the books she read at eleven were dozens upon dozens of Chinese folktale and fairytale stories. With her customary cleverness Lin has now taken the essence of those tales and woven them into a quest novel that is a mix of contemporary smart girl pizzazz and the feel of a classic that your parents were read as children. If there’s any author out there today with the potential of being remembered and beloved 100 years down the line, Grace Lin has my vote.
Poor in the valley of Fruitless Mountain, young Minli and her family earn their daily rice by working and scraping in the fields near their home. Her sole joy comes at night when her father tells her wonderful stories of far away places. One day Minli buys a goldfish to improve her fortunes, but when her mother sees her "foolish" purchase, Minli frees the fish and sets it in the river. Little does she suspect that this single act will give her the impetus to seek her family’s fortune by leaving to find the Old Man of the Moon. Along the way Minli makes friends and outwits foes in her attempt to help not just herself but those she loves and cares about.
The aforementioned Haroun and the Sea of Stories was the book I kept thinking about when I was reading, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. As in Lin’s novel, Rushdie attempts to reawaken that feeling you get when you read a quest novel where disparate characters band together and become friends along the way. The thing is, Lin has been cleverer than Rushdie here. While his novel was essentially an Oz redux, Lin’s world combines old stories and classic myths to come up with something that seems entirely new. The feel of this book has similarities to Oz, in that you feel you are in a safe space when you read this tale. Small children will not be frightened when this is read to them while older kids will relate to Minli and understand what makes her want to run away.
In Lin’s previous (and younger) novels for kids (Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat) she breaks up the text regularly with stories that are pertinent to the action, as well as wonderful little vignettes. While doing so, she impresses you with her writing. Phrases stick in a person’s brain, like "The forest was full of shapes and shadows and only barely could he see the faint footprints on the ground – it was like searching for a wrinkle in a flower petal." Lin also conjures up visuals. In one village, each villager cuts a bit of cloth from their own clothes to provide Minli with a warm coat. When she leaves, she waves goodbye. "As she watched the sea of ruined sleeves flutter at her, she realized it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen." And she has so perfectly incorporated real legends and fables too. Generally Lin’s interpretations of the tales sound like her own inventions. Only once in a while do you get a glimpse of the old tale behind her words. When the Old Man of the Moon changes a man’s fate by turning the number 19 into 91 with a simple flick of a brush, one can assume he’s not doing it to numbers as we see them, but as a reader you simply do not care.
One of the other remarkable things about the book is that the story isn’t just Minli’s journey we’re watching but the emotional journey of her mother. From scraping harpy into loving appreciative person, we see this change come about thanks to her grief. How many quest tales can you think about where you cut between the protagonist and their healthy relatives at home? Even if it happens, the relatives are usually in some kind of dire straits. Not here. The biggest problems dealt with in these passages is the loneliness of the parents. And for some kids, this will be a relief. To know that the parents are still safe and sound. To see how much they care for their absent daughter, even while she’s off having adventures. There’s a kind of tacit understanding at work here. No matter how far you go, your parents will still be back at your home waiting for you. No matter what.
Lin has always been an artist, so it’s little surprise that she has illustrated this book. What is new is that the pictures aren’t the usual pen and ink spot illustrations. Little Brown shelled out some cold hard cash to make sure that each picture in this book is lush and lovely. While still recognizably her style, the art in this book is not as young as her work on, say, Lissy’s Friends or Where on Earth is My Bagel?. There’s a sophistication here that we’ve never seen before. For example, the initial view of Fruitless Mountain keeps a finger on what is kid-friendly, but also hints at the history of Chinese art and design at the same time. And in the text there are spot illustrations true, but even these are colorful. My sole regret is how small the book is. Someday it would be nice to see this title in a full lap-sized edition for easier reading. The better to appreciate the pictures, I think.
Sometimes it’s just nice to read something to your kids that’s beautiful. Holding Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is like holding a small treasure. A little piece of art. A graceful departure from the younger books she has done before, Lin mixes great writing with even greater kid-appeal and comes up with a story that everyone can enjoy. Boys and girls, kids and parents, everyone will like what they find here. How many books can you say that of off the top of your head?
On shelves now.
Copy: Final edition sent by publisher.
First Sentence: “Far away from here, following the Jade River, there was once a black mountain that cut into the sky like a jagged piece of rough metal.”
- Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup
- Dear Author
- Boys Rule Boys Read!
- Eva’s Book Addiction
- Abby (the) Librarian
- Linus’s Blanket
- The Happy Nappy Bookseller
- Hungry Brain
- Confessions of a Bibliovore
- A Year of Reading
- Jump Into a Book
- Reading with Momma
- Rave Reviews Log
- Shelf Elf
- Paper Tigers
- Charlotte’s Library
- Write for a Reader
- The Mommy Files
- Thrifty Minnesota Mama
- Creative Madness
- Abby (the) Librarian
- Wagging Tales
- Xiaoning’s Blog
- Boys Rule Boys Read!
- The book is, was, and evermore shall be an Al’s Book Club Pick for December 2009. Al, as in, Al Roker.
- Read chapter one here.
- It was a winner of the Parents’ Choice Gold Award.
- Check out the website for the book, which happens to include everything from event kits to Skype chats.
- Here’s a consideration of its Newbery chances.
- And, of course, she had a magnificent feature in a recent issue of SLJ (the one with the catchy cover).
Grace made her own trailer for the book as well. Verrrr nice.
And an additional interview with Grace: