The best books on China for young readers

Sigrid Schmalzer Author Of Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming
By Sigrid Schmalzer

The Books I Picked & Why

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

By Nie Jun

Book cover of My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Why this book?

This utterly charming collection of short stories by acclaimed cartoonist Nie Jun offers an insider’s glimpse into the alleys (hutong) of a Beijing neighborhood. Originally written for a Chinese audience, the book portrays a community that is quintessentially “old Beijing” and will be sweetly recognizable to anyone fortunate enough to have lived there in decades past: we see not only famous landmarks peeping out from behind the curved tile roofs of the classic courtyard-house (siheyuan) architecture, but also the green pillar mailboxes, low wooden courtyard chairs, bicycle repair stands, outdoor water spigots and washbasins, colorfully dressed old ladies dancing in the public square, and other authentic details that a book written for an international audience might not think to include.

The stories revolve around a young girl with an almost mystical connection to her quirky grandfather and are full of the kind of “everyday wonder” that every childhood should contain. 

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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

By Grace Lin

Book cover of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Why this book?

Winner of a Newbury Honor, this is the first installment in a trilogy of fantasy novels by Grace Lin, well known also for her many picture books and realistic middle-grade novels exploring Chinese-American heritage. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon tells the story of young Minli, who is seeking the Old Man of the Moon to bring good fortune to her family. Lin brilliantly fuses Chinese fairy tales and adventure stories with contemporary American fantasy; in its tempo and ornament the book evokes the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, but Minli will be as accessible to young readers as their favorite sister or bestie.

Readers already immersed in Chinese culture will feel right at home, while those less familiar will find in these pages a welcoming introduction. The drawings that grace the first page of each chapter are reminiscent of the Chinese folk art of paper-cutting (featured also in Moth and Wasp), and the ten full-page, full-color illustrations have the feel of lush Chinese tapestries. Don’t miss the meaningful afterword (titled “Behind the Story”), where Lin shares a bit of her own journey growing up in the United States and learning to appreciate her heritage—along with some of the real-life inspirations for the story elements and illustrations, collected over the course of her travels in China. 

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Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So

Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

Why this book?

Cao Wenxuan is a professor at Peking University and one of China’s most popular and esteemed writers of literature for children. Thanks to award-winning translator Helen Wang, this lyrical middle-grade novel is available in English. Set in the Chinese countryside during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bronze and Sunflower tells the story of a city girl, Sunflower, who accompanies her father when he is “sent down” to the countryside for political re-education. After her father dies in a drowning accident, Sunflower is taken in by the family of a mute boy named Bronze, whose disability keeps him apart from other villagers but enables a profound understanding of the natural world.

Sunflower and Bronze become like sister and brother, transcending social and communication barriers to form an unbreakable bond. The political turbulence of the Cultural Revolution shapes the narrative, but only at a distance: through the children’s eyes, the important things in life—friends, family, and the wonders of nature—take center stage. 

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Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

By Na Liu, Andrés Vera Martínez

Book cover of Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

Why this book?

This graphic novel, based on the author’s own childhood experiences, offers a darker picture of life in 1970s China than I usually like to share with other Americans, whose view is often already bleak at best. But Little White Duck passes my nuance test: for every episode that strikes the reader as shockingly foreign, there is something that highlights the commonality of human experience. The story begins in 1976, when four-year-old Na attends a funeral for Chairman Mao with her grief-stricken parents. In the years that follow, Na’s life continues to be shaped by political campaigns: inspired by the heroic tales of Lei Feng, Na and her friend perform many acts of kindness, but their attempt to “save” some baby chicks ends badly.

Most poignant of all is the story of Na’s trip to visit her grandmother in the countryside, where Na comes face to face with profound social inequity. The great divide between urban and rural life (seen also in Bronze and Sunflower and Moth and Wasp) separates Na from her cousins, but sadly, there is no one like Bronze or Pu Zhelong to help Na bridge the gap. Illustrated by the author’s husband, the book offers an intimate and bittersweet portrait of Na Liu’s childhood in China. 

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Boxers & Saints

By Gene Luen Yang

Book cover of Boxers & Saints

Why this book?

Bound and sold separately, Boxers and Saints are really two halves of a single graphic novel, best read in quick succession by readers mature enough to handle honest depictions of historical violence. Along with luminaries like Grace Lin, Gene Luen Yang is rightly celebrated for his contributions to children’s literature on Chinese-American themes—his American-Born Chinese is especially powerful in this regard. In contrast, these volumes are set in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Picking up Boxers, I was instantly immersed in the social and cultural tensions of northern Chinese villages circa 1900—and then I flipped to the back and found my Ph.D. advisor’s book on the Boxers first on the list of suggested readings. So that helps explain why Yang’s take on the Boxers speaks to me! In any case, Yang is to be applauded for capturing the subtleties of this difficult material.

The first volume follows a boy who joins the Boxers in their magic-fueled quest to rid China of “foreign devils”; the second takes up the story of a girl who joins a Christian church and, propelled by visions of Joan of Arc, throws her lot in with the Western missionaries. Nothing is simple about this history, and Yang rightly eschews easy answers for open questions on matters of deep ethical and political importance. 

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