Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our fourth edition  of  “A little birdy told me…” in which guest writers are featured and share about their favorite children’s books and schools from around the world.  

Meet today’s “little bird,” Anne Marie Coyoca–mother, educator, volunteer and children’s literature enthusiast.  Originally from California, she currently lives in China with her husband and two daughters. I am delighted to highlight Anne’s contribution about Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain meets the Moon, a novel that three generations in my family (myself, my mom and my daughter) have read and cherished.

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Author and Illustrator: Grace Lin

Regional Focus: China

Genre: fantasy, fiction, folklore

In Anne’s words:

I was first introduced to Grace Lin’s books at my daughter’s school library in Beijing, China where we live. After reading, The Year of the Dog with my daughter the first thought I had was, “This is the kind of book I wish I had growing up!”

The Year of the Dog is Grace Lin’s own childhood story growing up as the only Chinese American in her elementary school and town. As a second generation Asian American myself I related to this book with both humor and nostalgia.   Growing up I loved reading books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but also longed to find books where the main female character was not only strong, but Asian, like myself.

After scouring my daughter’s school library for all of Grace Lin’s books, both picture books and early readers, I finally found her 2010 Newberry Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Often described as the Chinese Wizard of Oz it introduces readers to Minli, the daughter of hard- working parents who toil in the fields day in and day out. At night her father tells her stories about the Old Man and the Moon who has the answers to all of life’s questions. Inspired by her father’s stories, Minli sets out on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon in hopes of changing her family’s fortune. On her journey she meets a doubtful dragon, a talking goldfish and an array of magical creatures who accompany her on her quest to find the answer to life’s ultimate question.

Themes: storytelling, family, friendship, faith

What I love:

  • Beautiful illustrations enhance the richness of Chinese culture throughout the book. Each chapter has a small traditional Chinese paper cutting illustration at the top which adds to the Chinese charm of the book. There are a small handful of pages that depict colorful scenes of Chinese nature, art and architecture all attractively illustrated with Grace Lin flair and style.
  • Grace Lin weaves both fantasy and Chinese folklore seamlessly throughout the story. In her author’s notes at the end of the book she writes how some characters are based off of the real myths, while others are embellished and derived from her own imagination. The book is like a fusion of both past and present, as well as traditional and modern versions of China.
  •  Living in China, I am familiar with some Chinese symbols and themes, but reading them as characters in the book gave these everyday symbols more importance to me. For example, I always knew dragons and tigers were very prominent symbols in Chinese culture, however, seeing these animals acted out as characters one mythical, the other real, gave me a better understanding of how Chinese see the importance of these symbols in their culture.
  • The book’s message is timeless and universal. By the end of the book, all the stories and characters are brought together and remind all readers, regardless of what culture or ethnicity, the true value of family and friendship.

Discussion:

  • Think about the books and stories that you have read or grown up with. How do these stories reflect who you are?   Which stories have given you a new understanding that you did not have before?
  • What stories are true or mythical in your own culture? What stories have been passed down from past generations to the present?
  • If you had a chance to meet the Old Man of the Moon and could change your fortune, what question would you ask him?
  • What was your favorite story in the book?

Connections:

  • There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. Find out what year of the Chinese zodiac you were born in. For example, my oldest daughter was born in the year of the tiger, while my youngest one was born in the year of the dragon. My husband and I are both sheep. My in-laws, both first generation Chinese tease my husband and me that we will both be eaten alive! Which is partially and figuratively true!
  • Tell your story.   What books do you love or did you love growing up with? How have those stories inspired you to tell your story?

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Big Red Lollipop

Regional focus:  South East Asia Diaspora

Author: Sophie Blackall

Illustrator:  Rukhsana Khan

Genre:  children’s literature

I’ve been away from academia for a long time…two decades to be exact.  While I love children’s literature and enjoy delving deep into the cultural themes depicted in stories for young audiences, I am rarely challenged to explore all angles of  my book choices.

Mohit, a friend for years, bilingual educator, teacher trainer, global citizen and a current graduate student at the University of Texas, Austen has been visiting La Puerta Abierta for the past two weeks leading teacher workshops, modeling multimodal language activities and living the day-to-day with our students and staff at our center.

In between his activities with our school community, I take advantage of ten minute time gaps to “talk” children’s literature with him and to catch the pulse on current trends and on-going controversies in the realm of education.  There are moments when I fear that I’ve been away from the academic circuit for too long, like when we plunged into the children’s classic Tikki Tkiki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, published in 1968.  I remember repetitively  listening to a recording of Tikki Tikki Tembo on my plastic record player as a child, marveling at the illustrations that transported me to far away and “exotic” places.  I memorized the tongue twister of sounds that accompanied the name of the main character.  In fact, Tikki Tikki Tembo has also become a favorite for teachers and students at La Puerta Abierta.  Hence, when  Mohit discussed the cultural misreprestentations so abundantly present in the story, I was bewildered.  I pulled my tattered childhood copy of Tikki Tikki Tembo off my  shelf and reread the text and examined the illustrations.  The lack of cultural authenticity was startling.

I  recently purchased Big Red Lolipop when a friend recommended it and I quickly fell in love with the bright, bold illustrations by Sophie Blackall and Rukhsana Khan’s tale of  sisterly dynamics.  Khan and Blackall  create scenes that are in many ways universal, and yet, provide the reader with a unique glimpse of life of a Pakastani family living North America that is distinctly authentic.

I was convinced that I had discovered my next title for Sail Away Story, and then…I talked with Mohit! I learned that yes, in the academic world, there is some criticism of Big Red Lolipop.  For example, why does Ami (the mother of the main character) not know what a birthday party is?  Many Pakastani’s do celebrate birthdays and a reader might make assumptions that Ami is simple or unengaged.

That said, Mohit did endorse Big Red Loliop.  In his words:

The book will resonate with South Asian children and allow  all readers a window into the domestic life of a Pakistani family in North America that is “just like other families” in some ways, and different in others.

Later in the day he sent me an essay by Rudine Sims-Bishop which he had studied in a previous graduate course.  Sims-Bishop states “books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.  These windows are also sliding doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.  When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.  Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience.  Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

Big Red Lollipop provides both windows and mirrors for our young readers as they begin to understand themselves and the world at large more profoundly.

While I have no plans of returning  to the world of academia in the near future, I remain grateful for friends and colleagues who connect me to current trends in education and cultural representation, and in turn, encourage me to delve deeper in my understanding of children’s literature.

About:

Big Red Lollipop is a story told from the perspective of Rabina, who is invited to her first birthday party.  When her mother (Ami) insists that she must bring her little sister Maryam along to the celebration, Rabina is mortified and worried not only about what the other children will think of her, but what disasters her sister will ignite.  Maryam does spark a whirlwind of chaos, and Rabina is furious.  However, as the story progresses, we learn that sisterly love often surpasses sibling squabbles and that  forgiveness is a powerful tool.

What I love:

  • Blackall’s artistic choices and attention to detail  with Ami’s salwar kameez (traditional dress of women in the Punjab region), the raja (quilt) on the children’s bed and the embroidered pillows on the sofa allow the reader to glimpse into the lives of a Pakistani family living in North America.
  • Khan’s message goes deeper than “fair is fair.”  She explores real solutions of compassion and forgiveness.
  • In a time when islamophobia is very much alive, I am hopeful to find children’s books that represent Muslim characters in dignified, every-day roles.

Themes:  South East Asia Diaspora, forgiveness, family

Discussion:

  • Why do you think that Ami might not be familiar with birthday parties?
  • What are a few clues that help you to understand that Rabina’s family has origins in a different country?
  • What is forgiveness?  When have you had to offer forgiveness to another person?  Have you ever had to ask for forgiveness?
  • Who do you identify most with in the story?  Why?

Connections:

  • What is your favorite sweet?  Draw an exaggeratedly big picture of it in the style of Blackall’s  lollipop.
  • Rabina’s family is originally from Pakistan.  Find Pakistan on a map.  Investigate interesting facts about the country and culture.
  • Make a list of ways you could welcome a new immigrant  like Rabina into your school, community or neighborhood.
  • Listen and watch  Rukhsana Kahn read Big Red Lollipop here.

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Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth

Regional focus:  India

Author:  Sanjey Patel and Emily Haynes

Genre:  Children’s literature

In Sanjey Patel and Emily Haynes’ playful story, meet young Ganesha, a mythological character from the Mahabharata, the epic poem of Hindu literature. Ganesha is just like any other child, with the exception that he has the head of the elephant and his best friend is a tiny magical mouse. He has a soft spot for sweet treats. In this comical tale, we learn that Ganesha breaks a tusk on a surprisingly hard jawbreaker candy. With an unexpected twist of fate, we discover how his broken tusk eventually plays a very important role in Hindu history.

What I love:

  • Patel’s ilustrations are colorful, whimsical and inviting.
  • The story is hilarious.
  • What’s not to love about candy!

Themes: friendship, resourcefulness, mythology

Discussion:

  • What are your favorite sweets?
  • Have you ever felt sad about loosing something that was important to you? How did you eventually feel better?
  • What mythological characters exist in your culture? What do they represent?

Connections:

  • Create a mythological character with the head of an animal and a body of a person. What is this new character’s favorite food? What is his/her “claim to fame”?
  • Ask an elder to share a story about a mythical character that he/she learned about as a child.
  • Investigate the stories of other deities/mythical characters from the Hindu culture/religion.
  • Check out additional activities at: www.chroniclebooks.com/landing-pages/pdfs/Ganesha_activities_r2.pdf

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APV School

Regional focus:  India

Ashram Paryvaran Vidyalaya, Ashram Environmental School

Nestled in the Indian Himalayas, surrounded by lush, green forest and painted mountains, flourishes a small, soulful school known locally as APV. APV School was founded in 1995 by education reformist Anandji, who, after spending decades in the Indian Education system and feeling disenchanted with conventional learning techniques was moved to begin a mindful school in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. Teachers live, meditate, farm, trek, make music and run a school together.
The school is dedicated to providing a holistic, mindful and inclusive educational experience to local children by ways of music, meditation, nature appreciation and spontaneous learning.

The philosophy and methodology of the APV School springs from the simple belief that education, at its core, is not the accumulation of information but an inner evolution, an insight into the self, a refinement and deepening of awareness, and a flowering of compassion.

Mornings at APV begin with an assembly where all students and staff are present, and a teacher leads the community in a gentle nature observation and a short meditation. Soon after, children share in song and rhythm before separating into their learning groups. There are no chairs or tables at APV or sophisticated teaching equipment. Their greatest resource is thoughtfully trained teachers who have been supported and have learned the delicate technique of teaching in the moment, and truly listening to their students.

On a personal note, APV remains near and dear to my heart. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with APV on three separate occasions, most recently with my 10 year old daughter, who was welcomed with enthusiasm into a truly embracing community.

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