I remember when Grace Lin first started writing chapter books for kids. She’d been doing picture books (mostly for others) for years and when at last she started creating small semi-fictionalized memoirs based on her own experiences she ended up tapping into a kind of 21st century need for books with a realistic “classic” (forgive the phrase) feel. The sideways shift into fully illustrated full-color folktale-based fiction felt simultaneously like a throwback to a long-forgotten era (particularly when you consider how few straight folktales are published these days) and a very hip and modern mix-and-meld of text and image and tale. The gamble paid off (they don’t throw Newbery Awards at every book that meanders down the pike after all) and now, years later, Ms. Lin returns with yet another folktale/fiction retelling. She can no longer claim the small unnoticed status she once enjoyed. Not if she keeps writing books as good as this one anyway.
This wasn’t part of the plan. Not the way he envisioned it, anyway. When Rendi hid in the wine merchant’s traveling cart he naturally assumed it would take him somewhere big and populated. The last thing he expected was to be dumped in the middle-of-nowhere Village of Clear Sky. Now a chore boy in the only inn in the vicinity, Rendi takes his frustrations out on the inhabitants. It isn’t until a mysterious and beautiful lady appears telling strange tales that he finds himself wrapped up in a mystery that may answer a twin problems: The location of the moon that disappeared several nights ago and the reason that only Rendi can hear unknown groans and moans on the night wind.
Though I knew walking in that the book wasn’t going to be a sequel to Lin’s Newbery Honor winning title Where the Mountain Meets the Moon I wasn’t prepared for the overlapping elements that connect the two books. Interestingly both books have the same villain, though as before he is seen off-screen and mostly in retrospect. Magistrate Tiger isn’t your standard stock villain, though. He has his moments of softness, if not goodness. These moments serve to make him far more interesting that the countless two-dimensional baddies that populate so many of our children’s books. Other connections exist as well. The old man of the mountain with his book who was so sought after in “Where the Mountain” may indeed make an appearance in the second as well. And then there’s a certain killer tiger . . .
As with Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (and even her works of realistic fiction, for that matter) Lin peppers her tale with classic Chinese folktales, adapted and reconstructed to serve the story. Yet unlike her other book Ms. Lin’s stories here are becoming increasingly sophisticated. They all engage in a cyclical pattern. Seemingly unconnected at the start, every tale refers back to its teller in some way, and some even double back to tell stories that lead directly into tales already heard. By the time you reach the end you realize that no tale exists entirely by itself and that the key to the mystery and the solution to the story lies in remembering each tale. The crazy thing is that even as the book does this it appears on the outset to just be this sweet and simple children’s story. Fair play to Lin’s mad plotting skills then.
With its subdued cover and literary title, this is probably going to have to be one of those books that need to be talked up to get kids interested. The already existing Lin converts who ate up all her Pacy titles and devoured Where the Mountain Meets the Moon will naturally gravitate to the book anyway. For the others, it may take a little finagling. Fortunately a booktalk for this title basically writes itself. All you have to do is mention a boy with a mysterious path on the run, magic toads, bandits and kidnap attempts, thwarted lovers, tricking people into eating snails, and a mysterious being that moans in misery and pain but can only be heard by our hero and voila! Instant if not interest then curiosity.
When an author for children is good from the get-go it can sound like a bit of backhanded praise to say that they’ve improved over the years. Ms. Lin has always been an accomplished author and her plots have certainly always worked. Yet with Starry River of the Sky she cranks up the quality an additional notch or two. Perfectly planned and wholly original, she delivers her best novel for kids yet. It just works.
On shelves October 2nd.
Source: Galley received from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
- The Sign of the Qin by Laura Geringer
- The Boneshaker by Kate Milford
Other Reviews: Ravenous Biblioworm’s Book Reviews